Thursday, March 19, 2009

NYSUT Hostility Cracking to Openess on Charters?

Last week President Obama made a comprehensive and visionary speech outlining his education agenda for America. Among the many issues he supported was charter schools, including removing any caps imposed by states on their allowable number. New York, for example, has a cap of 200 charter schools, which was doubled by the state legislature only two years ago.

More significantly were the several education reform measures espoused by the President that are commonplace among New York's 115 charter schools in operation, and the 30 approved schools opening in the next 18 months. These include merit pay for teachers, and removing "bad teachers out of the classroom." He also discussed longer school days and years, urging us to "rethink the school day to incorporate more time" and spoke of getting beyond the agarian school year when we were more of a nation of farmers.

Even the President's seemingly abstract discussion of using data systems to improve instruction had a ring to anyone operating or seeking approval of a charter school in New York. Good data systems, he said, can be used to "track how much progress a student is making and where that student is struggling – a resource that can help us improve student achievement, and tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not."

By embracing these common-sense reforms, along with high accountability and rigorous standards, it's no surprise that President Obama embraces charter schools since theses policies are ubiquitious in charters.

So, what's not to like?

For some, it's the charter school part of the speech, which, if you add the charter-like features, made up about half the speech itself.

The New York State United Teachers, for example, took issue with President Obama on several fronts, including merit pay and charters. NYSUT President, Richard Iannuzzi considers charter schools a "drain" on "mainstream public education." After all the progress of charter schools, and the growing bipartisan concensus on their success, Mr. Iannuzzi is still working off decade-old talking points.

Mr. Iannuzzi sees charter schools claim on public tax money is illegitimate by supposedly siphoning tax money from public schools -- except that charters are public schools, and the children in them have every right to public funds as those in the district.

Even more absurd is Mr. Iannuzzi's assumption, told to the Jamestown Post Journal, that if charter schools work, "you can bring it into the public schools, and then you don't need the charter schools.'' Really?

How many district schools operate longer than 180 days? Nearly every charter does.

How many district schools have a longer school day? Nearly every charter does.

How many district schools scrapped tenure, enabling them to remove "bad teachers out of the classroom?" In fact, NYSUT last year got the legislature to repeal Gov. Spitzer's modest tenure reform. Not a single non-conversion charter school I'm aware has tenure.

And what of merit pay? This common feature in charters is inimical to NYSUT's President who thinks it should not exist to reward individual teachers for their performance. Rather, it should be given to the school as a whole. That's not merit pay; it's more school aid, and he should say so.

It looks like we will have to wait a while before we bring those charter characteristics into the the district schools. Until then, New York very much needs charter schools.

It's unfortunate that while NYSUT organized more than a dozen charter school faculties in the state, they continue to criticize charters in the state Capitol, calling for funding cuts and claiming they are a "drain" on "mainstream public education." Thankfully, President Obama has a different view.

Now, this week Mr. Iannuzzi penned an op-ed in the Times Herald-Record saying NYSUT is "open to charter schools." That would be nice. Certainly NYSUT has been open to more dues-paying members (a "drain" on teachers' paychecks?).

However, if Mr. Iannuzzi's new openness to charters is real, coming perhaps after further thought on the President's superb speech, hopefully it will finally cause NYSUT to rethink its ten-year hostility to charter schools. Certainly that would be better for their dues-paying charter member teachers. Then maybe we can all concentrate more on making even better public schools, and argue less in the political arena.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.