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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Schools must expand for charters and pre-K

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Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 10:30 am

There has been a great deal of heated debate recently about the place of charter schools in the public education system and how to best pay for making full-day prekindergarten available to every eligible child.

Often lost in the rhetorical bomb throwing and lawsuit filing is this: Adding charter schools and finally making prekindergarten truly universal calls for more school buildings. Lots of them.

If all children, no matter where they live or how much money their parents have, are to get a genuine chance to succeed in school, we need to provide them with real classrooms in which to learn.

For decades — not years, but decades — the children of hardworking immigrant families in the Corona and Elmhurst neighborhoods I represent have had to try to learn in deplorable facilities no one would expect to find in the wealthiest city in the richest country on the planet.

Forget state-of-the-art technology, the dilapidated “temporary” classroom units many of our kids are stuck in do not even have bathrooms. Stories of elementary schoolchildren straining to “hold it in” for hours — not always successfully — are not unusual.

How can a poor kid feeling as if his bladder is about to burst possibly pay attention to anything a teacher says? That kind of situation is as unacceptable as it is disgraceful for a great city like ours.

As a state legislator, charter school parent and graduate of the city’s public school system, I have an enormous stake in the ongoing debate on prekindergarten and charter schools.

While universal prekindergarten has been policy in New York since 1997, it has never been sufficiently funded. I support the mayor’s push to make prekindergarten in New York City available to all children.

As for charter schools, the good to have come of the heated back-and-forth these past several days is that these programs are rightfully being recognized as valuable, welcome options for parents. The primary point of contention has been about classroom space and providing charter schools with permanent facilities.

But schools in many parts of the city aren’t equipped to meet the demand for kindergarten seats, let alone offer prekindergarten to every eligible child, or afford classroom space to a charter program.

Today’s school overcrowding was in the making from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, when the old Board of Education closed more than 100 schools because of declining enrollment.

Within a few years of the last building closing, the city’s population grew. School enrollments began to surge. School construction never kept pace.

What we often see happen today is that almost as soon as a new school opens, it becomes overcrowded. In my community, for example, I helped secure some of the funding to build PS 307. The school opened in 2009. Within a few years, it had the second-longest kindergarten wait list in the city.

Yet it is other parts of the city’s infrastructure that grab headlines. Vice President Biden recently said that if he blindfolded someone and took him to La Guardia Airport, the person would think he was in “some third-world country.” He was not alone in deriding the condition of our city’s airports.

Not long afterward, the upgrade of La Guardia and Kennedy Airports was made a priority. The governor’s plan to cut red tape and fast-track major improvement projects at the airports was rightfully applauded. The airports and the jobs they provide have long been integral to the city’s economy.

In purely economic terms, however, our children are far more important to the city’s future. Yet many of their classrooms make “third world” La Guardia Airport look like the Taj Mahal.

In a place as densely populated as New York City, space for classrooms, or anything else for that matter, is hard to come by and expensive.

But whether we want to expand prekindergarten, add charters or finally relieve the suffocating overcrowding that has long plagued far too many of our schools, we have no choice but to find space and the money to pay for it.

JosÈ Peralta is New York State Senator for the 13th District, in Western Queens.

Welcome to the discussion.