Meet the Black Jew Behind Charter Schools Law

NEW YORK — He’s a poster boy for this state’s new charter school bill: a 28-year-old man of black and Jewish descent — Omar Wasow, co-chairman of the Coalition for Independent Public Charter Schools.

Mr. Wasow is one of the key players behind the charter school bill that was passed by the state legislature in Albany earlier this month. The bill, which was championed by Governor Pataki, gives a mandate for the creation of as many as 100 new charter schools, independently run public schools operated by parents, community groups, nonprofit and even for-profit entities.

Mr. Wasow’s background is symbolic of the confluence of interests that have converged to push the charter school bill through the state legislature. The son of two teachers, Mr. Wasow says he recognizes the centrality of education to a cohesive society and the importance of creating alternatives to the city’s floundering public schools. As a black man, he says, he understands the key role charter schools can play in offering African-American children who may not have the resources to attend private schools an alternative to traditional public-school education. As the son of a Jewish man, Mr. Wasow is also part of a community whose members, since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike of 1968, have often moved out of the city to send their children to suburban schools. As an entrepreneur, Mr. Wasow also runs an online web-development company that helps persons poorly versed in web technology access the Internet more effectively, much as he tries to help low-income children access high-quality education at charter schools.

“We need the same kinds of opportunities for groups of committed, innovative individuals to start schools, the same way that we see innovators throughout society having the freedom to act on their own ideas and offer a better service in business,” Mr. Wasow said. “My own experience in running a company led me to see that one of the central problems in running schools is that they need small groups of committed individuals working on them. We need creation of more choice, more alternatives — especially people who aren’t the government running public schools.”

The schools created by the new bill will be exempt from state and local regulations except as they relate to health, safety and civil rights laws. The schools will be able to create their own curricula, set the length of the school day and deny admission to unqualified students. Students in charter schools must take the same standardized tests required of students in other public schools. Groups seeking charters can apply to their local boards of education, the board of trustees of the State University of New York or the state Board of Regents, which will actually issue the charters.

“The battle for school choice is the next civil rights battle of this generation,” Mr. Wasow said. “You need to get schools that aren’t run by the government, and you need to think about how do we deliver excellent quality education to all the low-income kids who may not have the privilege of going to a good private school.”

Mr. Wasow said he founded the Coalition for Independent Public Charter Schools two years ago in part as penance for becoming an entrepreneur in a family of educators. “I come from teachers on both ends of my family going back several generations, so concern for education runs in my blood,” he said. However, the ideological motivation behind Mr. Wasow’s support of charter schools, he said, comes from the belief that education is “the central mechanism in improving people’s lot in life and improving class mobility and allowing more people to find their own way out of poverty.”

Like many of the children he is working to help, Mr. Wasow is a product of New York City’s public schools. After finishing high school, Mr. Wasow went to Stanford University, where he was involved not only as a student but as an educator. “I taught a class at Stanford on black-Jewish relations from Columbus to Crown Heights,” he said. “It was quite a project.”

After graduating from Stanford and founding New York Online, Mr. Wasow and a friend started the coalition. Until the passage of the charter law, the group drafted dozens of model charter-school applications to demonstrate the demand for charter schools. It also coordinated a lobbying effort by the coalition’s board of trustees, which Mr. Wasow said includes high-profile citizens such as Steve Forbes.

“Now that the bill has passed, we will have to rethink our goals,” Mr. Wasow said. “We will really try to help people move from being start-ups and writing business plans to actually help facilitate [charter schools] — going from conception to production.”

Mr. Wasow called the Albany bill one of the strongest in the country, and he attributed its passage and success to the governor. But some of those involved in the discussions surrounding the bill were dissatisfied with the outcome. The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said in a statement that the teachers’ union is “most distressed” by the Albany agreement, which she said directed public funds from financially-strapped public schools to new charter schools. “Creating new schools without providing additional resources will diminish the resources our schools can provide for children,” she said. “The legislation leaves many unanswered questions.”

The executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Phil Baum, said, “There’s a general dissatisfaction with the quality of education now being offered in the public school system. We believe that the public education system has to be looked at critically. There is a readiness to experiment with new alternatives now, and charter schools do not compromise our traditional stand in favor of separation of church and state.”

One open question is which groups will seek charters under the new law. The Rev. Floyd Flake, a former congressman from Queens who has been a proponent of vouchers, has said he may seek a charter for a school. Such schools would be subject to the normal constitutional restrictions on church and state, so charter schools are not a solution for, say, Orthodox parents of Jewish day school students. The New York legislation states specifically, “A charter shall not be issued to any school that would be wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine would be taught.” The door remains open, however, for groups of parents who want to work with for-profit companies such as the Edison Project, for secular Jewish organizations like community relations councils and for activists in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale who have been trying to start a school.

Mr. Wasow said his involvement with charter schools and charter school legislation will remain securely in the not-for-profit arena. “I have been involved in trying to put pressure on the governor and on the legislature on the charter school issue,” he said. “Because if parents are not really given real choices, nothing will change.”

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