CharterFolk Contributor Danyela Souza Egorov – Lessons Learned From My Run for NY State Senate

Hello Charter Folk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Danyela Souza Egorov, New York City (NYC) Strategy Advisor for the NY Charter Schools Association.

Danyela Souza Egorov

I provide Danyela’s bio below.

Danyela Souza Egorov has over 10 years of professional experience in business, government, and nonprofits, with a focus on strategy, advocacy, and management. Ms. Egorov has worked at Families for Excellent Schools, California Charter Schools Association, New Leaders, and Boston Public Schools. She started her career as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., has a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and is the Founding Board Chair of Brooklyn RISE Charter School. She is currently the Vice-President of CEC 2 and works for NY Charter Schools Association. Ms. Egorov is passionate about supporting educators who are creating great schools for the most vulnerable children.  She has worked on opening 12 charter and district schools. Danyela grew up in Brazil and lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

When I decided to run for NYC Community Education Council (the equivalent of our School Board) in the beginning of 2021, a seasoned Councilmember told me “You can’t mention your work with charter schools, or you will never get elected”. My answer was “Anyone can just go to LinkedIn and see that I have been working with charter schools for over a decade, I don’t think I can nor should hide my support for school choice.” I ended up being the 3rd most voted member of my council and elected as Vice-President by my peers.

This year I decided to run for NYS Senate. I was very frustrated by how NY elected officials had not prioritized children during the pandemic; the city opened restaurants and gyms before schools, and toddlers were the last group still required to wear masks in pre-schools. I wanted to run a campaign focused on education issues: the need for school choice, focus on rigorous instruction, and putting families in the driver’s seat of their kids’ education. Here is what I learned:

The public is ready for a pro-school choice message

I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive the public is to the message of school choice. I expected to get pushback but was not prepared for how much support I would receive for my position on school choice. Charter parents, obviously, would come and tell me that choosing a charter school had been the best decision they made for their kids. Voters in low-income areas know families who send their kids to charters and understand that these schools are way better than the district schools. I was most surprised by higher-income voters’ support for school choice: they want their kids to get a great education at their local schools, but they also understand that this is not the reality in every neighborhood. There is a general understanding of how dysfunctional and expensive our school district is, and the public knows that only school choice can bring some hope of offering a high quality education to the kids who need it the most. Even with budget cuts happening to NYC public schools, the only criticism that I received was from far-left, union funded groups that will always oppose school choice but unfortunately have an outsize influence on elected officials.

School choice advocates have so much work to do to build political power

I was shocked by how organized some interest groups are and how far we are from that level. As soon as I qualified for the primary ballot, I received a number of requests for meetings and to fill out questionnaires about a range of issues: abortion rights, housing policies, parks groups, environment, among other grassroots movements. All these groups have very clear policy positions, and they will try to influence your campaign: they have endorsements, contributors, and volunteers. Until we have a similar structure established for the purpose of reaching out to every candidate in the ballot and making sure that school choice is at the top of their list, we won’t be a priority policy issue for those in power.

Every time I was campaigning and met a district teacher or employee, they would tell me “I will talk about you with my union rep and make my decision on who to vote for”. But when I met charter families or charter employees, they had no idea who to ask for guidance. Sometimes they would tell me they were planning to vote for my opponents, and I would say “Do you know they are absolutely against charter schools?” Most voters had no idea they were voting for candidates who are directly against their personal interest.

One of my biggest challenges was to prove to the charter donor community that I was a viable candidate. I was told by a big player that I was aiming too high and would have a hard time getting any media coverage. A few weeks later I had 4 appearances (some on national television) but still that was not enough to get the level of support I needed. Other interest groups have a more long-term view and support candidates who defend their messages because, as one political operator explained to me, “candidates are not viable until we make them viable.” I also think it is very important to normalize candidates running on a pro-school choice message in NY: unfortunately, it is still rare, and it will take a few attempts to get someone elected with this message.

I was very touched by the support of the charter community. I received lots of small donations and so many people spent their weekends volunteering for my campaign. I now see the immense potential of galvanizing all the people in NYC who have ties and sympathies to charter schools. Once we build the infrastructure to participate in the political sphere like other interest groups do, we will become a powerful force to bring school choice to NY.

The day after the election my son asked me if I had won. I said no, and he seemed a little disappointed. I explained that sometimes it is important to take on projects that you are not certain you can win, but you think it is the right thing to do. I hope my senate run can help normalize pro-school choice candidates in NY politics: it will take a few of us to run until someone gets elected on an unapologetic platform of school choice. I will continue working to help create the conditions for these pro-school choice candidates to be successful in the future.