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Rally By Charter School Teachers Opens New Front In Union Fight

A growing number of teachers work at non-unionized charter schools. At a Manhattan rally Wednesday, armed with selfie sticks from a pro-charter group, they showed their numbers.

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More than 1,000 charter school teachers rallied in New York City on Wednesday, protesting against what they said was the “status quo” of failing schools perpetuated by New York mayor Bill de Blasio.

The rally was arranged by advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools (FES) whose pro-charter rallies have in the past drawn as many as ten thousand people to downtown Manhattan and the New York state capital. But those events have typically been made up of charter school students and their families.

Wednesday's event was the first of its kind to focus solely on teachers, a sign of FES's goal to build a counterweight to the influence of teachers’ unions on city and state politics. FES is creating a politically-minded network from the rapidly-growing ranks of non-unionized teachers in New York state — charter chain Success Academy alone has swelled to 10,000 students, and there are now more than 200 charter schools in the system.

At Wednesday’s rally, attendees wore T-shirts calling themselves "teacher activists" in a fight for school choice and equality. Organizers said charter teachers were standing against a "city that shuts the doors of possibility" on black and Hispanic children by "forcing them into failing schools." Unions weren’t mentioned by name, though the mayor, whom FES sees as an ally of the teachers’ union, was called out repeatedly.

The event was heavy on calls for equality and choice, but its leaders and participants shared few specifics on what they wanted from City Hall or the education establishment. More than a dozen teachers interviewed said they held a range of opinions on teachers’ unions, and many had never belonged to one. Others declined to comment on the role of unions in the city education system, saying they came to the rally to draw attention to inequality in the public school system generally.

While unions have called for more investment in traditional schools, charter advocates see the growth of their schools as central to addressing the chronic failings of the education system. For FES in New York, that means being allowed to quickly open more charter schools, and having access to public buildings to house them.

Demands at Wednesday's rally were less pointed. “As teacher-activists, we need to take a stand for every child in New York City,” said Sierra Green, teacher at Girls Prep Bronx. “We need to make enough noise here today that our city leaders will be forced to hear us. Mayor de Blasio – this means you. We will not stand any longer for separate and unequal New York schools.”

Sibo Wang, who teaches science at Success Academy Harlem 1, said “when I look out over this crowd, I feel powerful,” and echoed the call to lobby elected officials and “hold leaders accountable for the decisions they make that affect our children and our communities.”

FES, which the New York Daily News revealed today is backed in part by hedge fund billionaires Dan Loeb and Julian Robertson, was the highest lobbying spender in New York in 2014, with a $9.6 million tab; New York teachers’ unions came in second, at $4.6 million.

As a DJ flown in from LA warmed up the crowd, FES staff handed out selfie sticks, tote bags, T-shirts, flags, and donuts, inviting teachers to pose in front of a red-carpet style banner that read "Teachers for Equality.”

Most attendees hailed from the city's largest and most influential charter organizations, including Success Academy, whose founder Eva Moskowitz is a longtime foe of de Blasio. Students at Success Academy and several other prominent charter networks were sent home early for the day so their teachers could attend.

Meanwhile, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew held a meet-and-greet for new teachers from district-operated schools at the union's Brooklyn office — along with the mayor's schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña.

Charter school advocates have argued that de Blasio and Fariña are too close to the UFT, which is mainly composed of teachers at traditional public schools, while the mayor's office has said the union helps negotiate contracts that ultimately benefit students. For the most part, charter school teachers are not unionized, but about two dozen independent charter schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens have organized with the UFT.

Amanda Figueroa, the emcee of Wednesday’s event and a teacher at Coney Island Prep, told the crowd Wednesday, “We need to get organized.”

“We’re going to use our power as political activists to demand more from Mayor de Blasio,” she said. “And I couldn’t imagine a more powerful group of advocates than the people I see here today.”

Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.

Contact Cora Lewis at cora.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.

Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at molly.hensley-clancy@buzzfeed.com.

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