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Another Voice: Charter schools are a lifeline for many city families

By Duncan Kirkwood

Recently, I was surprised to see my name appear in an Another Voice column by someone I’ve never met. Joe Cantafio, president of the Erie County Council of Teacher Union Presidents, has a big problem with me, charter schools and the work of Buffalo’s District Parent Coordinating Council and Sam Radford, a man who has spent more than a decade fighting for Buffalo families.

I’d like to set the record straight about Buffalo’s charters and my work at the Northeast Charter Schools Network.

First, I am a product of Buffalo city schools and I support all schools. I volunteer with and mentor city kids. I also know the district isn’t working for everyone. Thankfully, Buffalo is home to 17 public charter schools, and my daughters attend one.

I also run the Buffalo Black Lives Matter chapter. I grew up in the ’hood, went to a black college and now I’m back in my hometown to make a difference.

Second, I was disheartened to see Cantafio – someone who seems to pride himself on education – didn’t check the law. He should know that for-profit companies are no longer allowed to help manage charters in New York. That’s been the law since 2010; it’s nothing new. All charter schools are non-profits. The allegation that charter supporters are evil profiteers exploiting children couldn’t be further from the truth.

Cantafio lives in West Seneca, and the district there is working. The high school’s graduation rate is 90 percent. Cantafio’s kids should have the opportunity to attend good schools.

But so should mine. So should my neighbors. This right to choose should not be reserved for only those with privilege. I don’t appreciate folks choosing the best for their own, but trying to deny that right to those folks who may have less money.

Charter schools are a lifeline for many city families. Why should we be attacked by people from the ’burbs?

I am not afraid of the multimillion-dollar teachers union. If union heads view me as a threat, that’s a sign I am doing my job. I refuse to sit idly by while kids are doomed in schools that aren’t working. Too many of those kids end up dead or in jail.

Before charters, if your child was zoned for a terrible school and you couldn’t afford private school or to move, you’d be trapped. Thankfully, charter schools were introduced as laboratories of innovation, the idea being that if something works, replicate that model in the district schools.

There are some cities where that’s happening! The union doesn’t always succeed in dividing communities. In some cities, charters work together with districts to determine best practices for the benefit of all children.

That is what I want for Buffalo, so let’s not let anyone divide us.

District, charter, home school – we all have a voice. We as parents and community members can be – and will be – stronger together for Buffalo’s children.

Duncan Kirkwood is Western New York advocacy manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.

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