NEW YORK -- U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) came to the Bronx Monday to make the case for charter schools and heard his message echoed back by a handful of children dressed in plaid uniforms.
Three days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act with bipartisan support, Cantor visited the Bronx Charter School for Excellence to talk about expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run. He toured several classrooms and held a roundtable discussion with students, teachers and parents.
In one basement classroom, Cantor was drawn into a civics lesson. "Do you guys want to say what it was like to meet the mayor?" the teacher asked her fourth-graders.
The students described New York City Hall for Cantor. One talked about learning the branches of government.
"So you went down to city hall and you saw New York City Hall and the mayor? Wow," Cantor said. "I work in Washington. So you have a national government, a federal government, and then you have the state government, then you have a city government."
The House majority leader is, in fact, quite familiar with certain aspects of that city government: He has spent plenty of air time criticizing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on charter schools, at one point calling de Blasio's policies toward charters "a war on kids." But since then, the city's charter wars have calmed down, with de Blasio finding new quarters for the charter schools whose space-sharing arrangements he revoked and New York state passing a budget that helps some charters pay for facilities.
Instead of slamming de Blasio, Cantor continued the civics lesson.
"[T]hey were probably talking about it, about charter schools, right?" Cantor said. "So who wants to talk about this wonderful charter school?"
The kids immediately raised their hands to extol the virtues of their charter school over the local district public school, saying the charter had more caring teachers, offered a "bigger education" and did more to stop bullying.
Later, when reporters specifically asked Cantor about his views on de Blasio, he struck a conciliatory tone. "I hope that we can all work together," Cantor said. "In the past I've been very critical ... when there was an attempt to limit funding of charter schools." He dodged a question about whether the mayor was "out of step" with politicians nationally on charter schools.
In a third-grade classroom he visited, Cantor took a similar approach. "We've heard a lot about your school and a lot about how lucky you are to be in a school like this," he told the children, who took a break from discussing Because of Winn Dixie to greet him. "We're trying to understand how we can help schools like this and students like you and see if we can do so even more for other kids ... and then do it around the country. Who wants to talk about what's so wonderful about this school?"
One little boy wasn't exactly on message. "I liked my own school better because it was much more fun," he said. Cantor asked if that meant he's working harder now. The boy said he is, but it's stressful.
During his roundtable with the parents, Cantor talked up the charter school bill just passed by the House, which would increase federal charter school funding and make it easier for existing schools to expand. The legislation's prospects in the U.S. Senate are unclear. School leaders said the Bronx Charter School for Excellence was a good example of what charters could do with the right support. A few years ago, it found itself on the brink of closure by regulators, but has since become the only National Blue Ribbon School among public schools in the Bronx.
Although there was an obvious political component to Cantor's visit, some spectators said they thought his actions ultimately arose out of his concern for children.
William Sackey and his wife, Mercy Obuabang-Sackey, immigrated from Ghana and immediately put their children in Catholic schools. But they said the children weren't being challenged, so they sought to move them to the charter school. Now they have two children at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence and hope to get a third in soon.
"It has nothing to do with being Democratic or Republican," William said after the roundtable with Cantor. "It has to do with the future of our children. From what he said, I don't think it has to do with politics or him being a Republican, but it has to do with him doing things right."
"I see he's more concerned about the future of the children," said Mercy.