Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Senator Smith Gets $30 Million for Charter Schools - There's a Lesson Here

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith got a lot of criticism from charter folks early last month when, as part of the state budget deal, he agreed to freeze charter school funding for next year at current 2008-09 calculations, costing charter schools $50 million in formula funding.

Not three weeks later, Sen. Smith, with support from Gov. David Paterson, committed to restoring $30 million of next year's loss, which amounts to 60 percent of the charter cut. In times like these, this is a major recovery and will enable charters to avoid the worst of decisions for next year.

Sen. Smith and the Governor deserve much gratitude for finding alternative funding to help charter schools for next year.

The funding "freeze" had been pushed by state Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, at the urging of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and its state parent, NYSUT, even though both organizations represent teachers in several charter schools in the City and statewide.

Politically, the Speaker leads a legislative conference of 109 members, more than two-thirds of the 150-member Assembly. By contrast, the Senate Majority Leader holds the slimmest majority possible, with 32 Democrats to 30 Republicans -- meaning every one of Sen. Smith's 31 colleagues had to be supportive since only one renegade could upset a budget deal. And, Governor Paterson's poll numbers are visibly shrinking to the point where most assume he faces an insurmountable gubernatorial primary challenge next year from state Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo.

The point is that Speaker Silver negotiated from the strongest political position, while the other two could ill afford to hold out for very much that would prolong a budget deal much passed April 1st.

Charter school advocates have long sought equal funding with school districts, so it was upsetting to see charters lose funding for next year when they already get 30 percent less than district schools on a per pupil basis. Nevertheless, Sen. Smith and Gov. Paterson deserve great credit for listening to the charter charter community and doing right by committing to a 60 percent restoration in the face of ongoing fiscal challenges with the state's finances.

Two Worlds of Charters: Educational & Political
Having been involved in New York's charter school world from the beginning, it remains a fact of life, unpleasant as it may be, that charter schools operate in two worlds: educational and political. This is not unusual since anything having to do with public education is reliant on public funding through the political process.

That means charter school operators and supporters must cover both these worlds. First, get the educational part right by improving student learning and achievement, a Herculian task all its own. Charters also must be involved in the political side, which can come in many forms, be it organizing parents, establishing relationships with elected officials, and participating in events and organizations that promote charter schools in the political arena.

If this year's experience with the legislature's freezing the charter formula and its 60 percent restoration tells us anything, it is this: charter schools must continue their quality test scores for students and must ramp up political participation. Failure to accomplish either objective will lead to harmful legislation being adopted, and frustrate the chances to improve the statutory or regulatory climate for charter schools.

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.