Schools Key in Harlem Election

Press Releases

May 29, 2010

(From The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2010)


Basil Smikle Jr. has a lot of ideas about how to address Harlem’s most vexing problems, from crime to housing to underemployment, but his biggest asset as he runs for state Senate against Bill Perkins may be that he supports charter schools.

Mr. Perkins, a two-term legislator from Harlem, has outraged the charter-school community with his vocal opposition of the schools.

During a hearing on charter schools that he organized in April, Mr. Perkins said that because so many of the schools serve predominantly African-American and Hispanic children, “there is concern that charters are creating a de facto re-segregationist educational policy in New York City,” Mr. Perkins said.

Daniel Clark, field director of a Harlem group called Parent Power Now, said he thinks Mr. Smikle, 38 years old, is a “good candidate,” but quickly added that this Senate race isn’t about Mr. Smikle. “This is a referendum on Perkins,” he said.

He said his eighth-grader was “saved” by a Harlem charter school and that Mr. Perkins “made a big mistake” by opposing the schools. Mr. Clark is working to mobilize parents to register to vote and to spread the word about Mr. Perkins’s position on charter schools.

Mr. Perkins, who went to high school at the private Collegiate School in Manhattan, declined to comment. A spokesman said Mr. Perkins’s children attend public schools but said he didn’t know if the schools are in Harlem.

Mr. Clark’s efforts have some deep-pocketed backers, such as Democrats for Education Reform, which in recent months has plowed millions of dollars into efforts to raise the charter-school cap in Albany. On Friday, the legislature passed a sweeping bill to raise the cap to 460 from 200, and Mr. Perkins voted in favor of it. But the senator had voted against a similar effort in the past and earlier introduced his own version of legislation that would have curbed the schools. Mr. Clark’s Parent Power Now has received $20,000 for his parent-mobilizing efforts in Harlem from an offshoot of DFER, Education Reform Now.

In 2006, 23,000 people voted in a gubernatorial primary in Senate District 30, which includes most of Harlem, much of the Upper West Side and some of Washington Heights. Pro-charter voices like that figure. There are an estimated 10,000 children enrolled in 16 Harlem charter schools, or about 20% of all Harlem children. In addition, about 14,000 children are on waiting lists for Harlem schools, though not all reside in Harlem.

Mr. Smikle said he wants to support all schools, but is a fan of the choice that charter schools help provide. He said his mother, a public-school teacher in Queens, made such a choice for him in the Bronx, when she sent him to Catholic schools because she felt the public schools were unsafe. He recalls being unable to go out to play during the summer until he finished the math problems his mother posed for him. If he wanted to stay up late to watch a certain television show, he could only do so if he wrote a report about it.

Mr. Smikle, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, graduated from Cornell University and then earned a master’s at Columbia, where he teaches a graduate course. He joined Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 1999, then joined her staff after she won. Since 2003, Mr. Smikle has worked as a consultant on campaigns, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last re-election. His specialty: the African-American vote.

No longer an operative, Mr. Smikle said he now has to explain to voters who he is in neighborhoods where Mr. Perkins has deep roots. On a recent Saturday afternoon on the playground of P.S. 175, Mr. Smikle met with Perkins fans and detractors.

Mr. Smikle, who didn’t take off his blazer under the hot sun, explained his plans to preserve affordable housing and improve unemployment rates, hardly ever mentioning charter schools. To Iesha Sekou, an activist on street violence, he said: “I cannot tell you how crack and marijuana devastated my neighborhood.”

Ms. Sekou, who said she wanted an alternative to Mr. Perkins, listened politely, and invited him onto her weekly radio program to discuss his ideas. But she said she wasn’t yet convinced about Mr. Smikle’s prospects. “My concern is that we have someone who could win,” she said.