Charter Schools: Leveling the Playing Field, Teacher-Led Laboratories of Innovation, or, Publicly Funded Union Free, Quasi Private Schools? The NYS Legislature Begins to Develop the Next Level of Guidance/Scrutiny and Reform.

A zeal for different opinions …have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed with mutual animosities, and, rendered them much more deposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.
James Madison, Federalist # 10, 1787.
Ten years ago, in December 1998 the New York State legislature convened in a special session, for an extremely important issue, to raise their own salaries. Governor Pataki required that in order to approve the raise, BTW, the last time legislative salaries were increased, the legislature must approve a charter school law, and, lo and behold, a law emerged.
The pro and anti charter schools forces have dueled over the last decade and slowly but surely the number of charters schools has grown. The law established a cap, 100 charter schools in New York City, and 100 in the rest of the state. The cap has been reached in New York City.
What has faded into the background is the purpose of creating these public schools outside of the control of local education agencies. The law spells out the goals of charter schools,
    2.  The  purpose  of  this article is to authorize a system of charter
  schools to provide opportunities for teachers,  parents,  and  community
  members  to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of
  existing schools  and  school  districts  in  order  to  accomplish  the
  following objectives:
    (a) Improve student learning and achievement;
    (b)  Increase  learning  opportunities  for all students, with special
  emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who  are  at-risk
  of academic failure;
    (c) Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
    (d)   Create  new  professional  opportunities  for  teachers,  school
  administrators and other school personnel;
    (e) Provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of
  educational opportunities that are available within  the  public  school
  system; and
    (f)  Provide  schools  with  a  method  to  change  from rule-based to
  performance-based  accountability  systems  by   holding   the   schools
  established  under  this  article  accountable  for  meeting  measurable
  student achievement results.
“In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states,”  One of the first supporters of the charter school movement was the President of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker.
In a landmark address in 1988, former AFT President Albert Shanker became one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, serve as models for other public schools.
In the twenty year incubation the charter school movement has evolved in a different direction. Some charter operators, i.e., Victory Schools, is a “for profit” corporation that both runs charter schools and, for a fee, manages not-for-profit charter schools. KIPP runs 80 schools in twenty states,  the Promise Academy Charter Schools, part of the Harlem Children’s Zone model is a demonstration model in the Race to the Top (RttT) federal legislation, the Harlem Success Academies, run by Eva Moscowitz, are part of a national movement to support state by state legislation as well as supporting a national agenda.
The Obama/Duncan RttT application requires states to actively support the creation and expansion of charter schools and to serve high-needs student populations.
The State has a charter school law that does not prohibit or effectively inhibit increasing the number of high performing charter schools … charter schools … serve student populations that are similar to local district populations, especially relative to high-need students.
The original Al Shanker vision of charter schools created by teachers as laboratories of innovation has evolved into a public alternative to traditional, district-based, unionized public schools.
In New York State the “sides” are the charter school support organizations on one side and the teacher unions and parent advocacy organizations on the other, however the NYS Teacher Union (NYSUT) represents teachers in about 20 schools, and, the NYC Teacher Union (UFT) has opened two charter schools.
The charter school advocacy blog (“Chalkboard”) and the UFT blog, (“Edwize”) has hurled barbs for the last few years.
The billions in Obama/Duncan dollars has brought the charter issue to the fore, clearly, in order to increase the chances of carving off a piece of the 4 bill NYS has to amend it’s current charter law.
In the fall Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (Buffalo) introduced a bill to remove the cap and make other amendments to the charter law.
As the debate begins to heat up the UFT has released a report, “Separate and Unequal: The Failure of New York City Charter Schools to Serve the City’s Neediest Students.”  The Report points to sharp disparities in the number of special education and ELL children in charter and public schools, and, recommends sweeping changes in the current law.

The UFT on Jan. 3 released a report, Separate and Unequal: The Failure of New York City Charter Schools to Serve the City’s Neediest Students.

The report’s recommendations include:


  • mandating that charter schools commit to serving at least the district-wide average of neediest students, including but not limited to English Language Learners and special education pupils. If necessary, the lottery process for charter attendance should be centralized and overseen by a neutral third party.
  • banning for-profit firms from owning or operating charter schools, and capping management fees and charter school salaries at public sector levels.
  • insisting that for every improvement made in public school buildings (with public or private dollars) to accommodate a charter school, matching or comparable improvements be made for other district schools located in the same building.
  • prohibiting the co-location of charter schools in New York City school buildings until New York City schools have reached their class size targets under the Department of Education’s Contract for Excellence.
  • mandating that city and state officials can audit both financial and operational data for charter schools, and that such data be made available under the state’s Freedom of Information law. Charter school board members and employees should be subject to the same financial disclosure requirements and conflict-of-interest prohibitions as other public officials and employees.
  • ensuring workers’ rights by applying prevailing wage laws to charter school construction/renovation projects, and automatically recognizing local school district unions as the bargaining representatives for charter school employees (though new contracts would have to be negotiated “de novo” for each charter school).


The report and recommendations come as the Legislature has been urged to change the state’s current cap of 200 on charter schools as part of its application for federal Race to the Top funds.

The Report was supported by a number of legislators lead by Senator John Sampson, the Majority Leader of the NYS Senate. Assembly member Alan Maisel (D, Canarsie), who introduced a bill in the last session requiring charter schools to enroll at least the same percents of special education and ELL students as in the catchment districts, questioned whether charter schools were “innovative,” or whether they have simply “cherry-picked” students. Assembly member Linda Rosenthal (D, Upper West Side) chided charter schools and the Department of Education over the favoritism shown to charter schools in the allocation of space in public schools.

The legislators will convene on January 6th, listen to Governor Patterson’s State of the State message, and begin to grapple with how to produce a budget with a yawning $9 billion gap, in an election year. The new fiscal year begins April 1 and the folk in Albany, the  150 Assembly members, the 61 Senators and the Governor have a daunting task. The budget will “eat up all the air” as the clock ticks to April 1.

Charter school law changes, whether caps or the range of changes introduced by Sam Hoyt or the UFT will be debated in the post budget days. Last year the Assembly Education Committee held a series of well-attended hearings around the city as the School Governance Bill was crafted. It is possible that the legislature will once again ask for public input as an amended charter school bill takes shape.

Back in the fall/winter of 1787-88 James Madison, Alexander Hamilton (an emigrant from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean) and John Jay published eighty-five op ed articles in New York City newspapers calling for the ratification of the Constitution.

The intent of charter schools was simply to free schools of “rule-based accountability systems,”  toencourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;” to create “teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices.”  In reality charter schools have become, for the most part, union-free schools without any clear “innovative” educational philosophy.

To quote Madison, “Men of fractious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption or other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.”

2 responses to “Charter Schools: Leveling the Playing Field, Teacher-Led Laboratories of Innovation, or, Publicly Funded Union Free, Quasi Private Schools? The NYS Legislature Begins to Develop the Next Level of Guidance/Scrutiny and Reform.

  1. Looking into your post and find great article


  2. I’m pleased that the UFT is now dealing with the issues surrounding charter schools. We’ve been too passive for too long.

    Many years ago I served on a UFT committee appointed by Sandi Feldman to explore questions about the creation of new small schools. We issued a report tht contains many of the points the UFT is now making about charters. The problem was that we didn’t follow up with vigor. I hope that won’t be the case now.


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