Thursday, May 14, 2009

Two Charter Authorizers Are Better Than One

The New York Post today continues the discussion of the proposal to eliminate the State University's ability to approve and renew charters on its own by publishing an op-ed by Thomas W. Carroll, the head of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability and also chairman of the boards of the Brighter Choice Charter School for Boys and a similar elementary school for Girls, in Albany. Carroll supports maintaining SUNY's chartering ability, and makes a compelling case, including giving examples of high-performing charters that the Regents refused to approve.

The case made by Carroll and others makes clear is that more charter school authorizers brings more diversity and opportunity to have more charter schools. That is why this feature of any state charter school law is considered essential to have a workable, effective means to have a growing number of quality charter schools.

New York State was the 34th state to adopt its charter school law, in 1998. Those of us involved in that process understood based on the evidence of prior states that another entity besides the state Board of Regents also had to have chartering authority.

In New York, the Regents are the top education policy board that governs the state Education Department, appoints the Education Commissioner, and oversees and regulates education matters in district and non-public schools, higher education institutions and also numerous professional fields. Importantly, the Regents are appointed by the state Legislature which meet in joint session and elect its members. The Assembly Majority alone constitutes more than half the number of legislators (109 out of 212), meaning that the Democrats in that body effectively determine membership of the Regents.

Having the same appointing authority does not mean all the Regents think alike. In fact, the Regents historically have been very ambiguous about charter schools, with certain members strongly in favor, others mixed, some indifferent, and still others hostile.

At the time the law was being pushed by former Governor George Pataki, a Republican, one consideration was to create a stand-alone Commission on Charter Schools appointed by the Governor with approval of the state Senate, which is the typical means by which executive branch appointments are made. However, since the Governor already appoints the SUNY Board of Trustees and designates its chairman, it was decided to add charter schools to its higher education responsibilities.

This feature was resisted by the State Assembly, which naturally wanted only the Regents to decide on new charter schools and oversee them. The compromise made was to give the Regents a review and comment period of 60 days (since lengthened to 90) of every SUNY-approved charter, and allow the Regents either to approve or vote to send back a charter proposal to SUNY for reconsideration. SUNY, however, could consider or ignore the Regents comments and reapprove the charter after which it would go into effect.

This has meant more quality charter schools that otherwise would not have existed. That's not to say the Regents haven't approved good charter schools -- they certainly have. Nor, incidentally, does it mean SUNY is the perfect authorizer -- it isn't. In fact, the Regents have approved several high-performing charter schools, including ones in Syracuse and Lackawanna, which were previously rejected by SUNY.

Nevertheless, giving Regents control over every charter school would stagnate the movement in New York, and inexorably force more charter schools to conform to district schools with more requirements and micro-managing by the state Education Department, which has trended in a more bureaucratic direction in recent years.

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.