Monday, March 30, 2009

State Budget Charter School Mess

It is one thing when charter school opponents try to hurt you. We've come to expect that from certain legislators, usually members of the state Assembly. When your charter friends go along is when the danger comes.

Inadvertently or otherwise, charter school supporters, Gov. David Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader, Malcolm Smith, over the weekend agreed with Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, to cut charter school funding levels for 2009-10 by freezing it to current-year amounts. That's a cut of approximately $50 million from what charter schools were told they would receive under a state formula that has been part of the Charter Schools Act since its adoption in 1998 (and untouched by lawmakers until this week).

Meantime, the joint statement yesterday (Sun.) by the three men announcing the state budget agreement boasted of adding $1.2 billion in education funding over current year levels. Districts get more while charters get virtually nothing.

Four other modest, cost-free charter school proposals were simultaneously dropped while the funding cut was acquiesced to by our allies.

It's one thing to be told you can't get modest changes to the law. After all, three parties must agree. But only one party, either the Governor OR the Senate Majority Leader, needs to say "no" to keep something from hurting you. Neither one said it when crunch time came and it mattered the most.

Meanwhile, school districts will get more money next year not only from the state and federal governments, but can raise property taxes if they feel they need. Charters, on the other hand, have their primary funding source frozen and cannot levy taxes. Nor can much be expected from the philanthropic community which is suffering from this economic downturn.

This means that the funding gap between charter schools and districts, already about 30 percent, will further widen thanks to this state budget deal.

What about Speaker Silver? Isn't he culpable, too? Of course, he is, but that was no mystery. The Speaker has certainly shown to be the driving force on issue after issue.

We may hear some perfunctory justification for this, no doubt. After all, the state is in a serious economic crisis, and state foundation aid to school districts was frozen, too. Shouldn't charter schools take a hit as well? This simplistic rationale omits several key facts: 1) foundation aid is only two-thirds of school aid and drives a much lower percentage of district spending; 2) charter funding always was based on school district operating spending, but while such spending has and continues to increase, charters will now stay frozen; and 3) charters already start with less than districts, and this funding inequity has now been made worse.

What of the teacher unions' role? The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which includes the New York City UFT, were driving this train, make no mistake. Their January 28th testimony to the state legislature urged it to freeze charter school funding and that's exactly what happened, costing charters about $50 million next year. This sell-out to their union membership in charter schools is no coincidence, and there should be no doubt remaining in anyone's mind that NYSUT and UFT do not have charter teachers' interests at heart -- just their dues deduction.

What can be done? Charter schools should contact their state senators and Assembly representatives, and also should go directly to Gov. Paterson and Sen. Smith to fix this injustice and demand restoration.

Charters should demand nothing less from their representatives in state government. We already serve disproportionately at-risk students and outperform districts on less money. Gov. Paterson and Sen. Smith always understood that and supported us, except for last weekend when we needed them most.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

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