Tuesday, September 15, 2009

 
Chancellor Gives Marching Orders on Chartering to State Ed.

The two statewide charter school authorizers in New York -- the Board of Regents and the State University Board of Trustees -- meet today to act on several proposals for new charter schools, included among the variety of issues each organization deals with on a monthly basis. Both authorizers have committees that deal directly with charter school issues.

The Regents committee on Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education met yesterday in Albany, the first day of the typical two-day monthly gathering of the Regents. Most of the Regents participate at such committee meetings even if they are not a voting member.

As the Regents committee was routinely adopting the staff recommendation for each charter application, Chancellor Merryl Tisch spoke up. We must "develop a process that makes sense," she said, her voice raising the volume in the room. The Regents and Education Department "can't have a schitzo relationship" with the charter community.

What triggered these comments from the Chancellor was the recommendation by the Education Department to vote to "return" the Oracle Charter School renewal application to SUNY for reconsideration due to a supposedly incomplete curriculum.

A former co-chair of this committee, Tisch is familiar with chartering and is now publicly acknowledging what has long been a tortuous process for reviewing charter applications, which have grown to be many hundreds of pages. The state curriculum itself comprises most of this volume, as the Department requires charter applications to contain every benchmark, indicator, key idea, strand and standard for each subject in each grade -- including subjects for which there is no state test. [NOTE: I have long held, since my early days at SUNY, that this SED mandate arises from its misinterpretation of the state Charter Schools Act, but that's for another Chalkboard.]

Tisch called for the Education Department to "internally fix our own structure" for reviewing applications and dealing with charter schools overall, and to "come back to have a conversation" with the committee. This is an encouraging and welcome signal from the Chancellor. Clearly, Tisch is concerned about the message being sent to the charter community about the reasonableness of the Department -- and therefore, the Regents -- treatment of charter schools.

Regent James Tallon, a former Majority Leader of the state Assembly, responded that he did not want to see a relaxing of "meaningful standards" for dealing with charter school applications, but also stated that he "welcome[d] the conversation."

The timing of all of this coincides with new Education Commissioner, David Steiner, and the announcement at the same meeting of the new Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 education, John King (himself formerly from the Boston and NYC charter world). Both men were present at this meeting, and formally assume their new positions October 1st. In addition, the charter bureaus in Albany and New York City recently have undergone leadership transitions, which bring an opportunity to rethink the efficacy and practicality of past practices.

Rethinking Chartering
Reviewing, approving and overseeing charter schools is serious business, as it should be. But all of this has become increasingly burdensome and highly bureaucratic, with charter schools being treated too much like district schools, rather than the autonomous entities free from most laws and regulations and accountable for higher student academic outcomes.

Last summer, Regent Saul Cohen stated that he hopes the appointment of Commissioner Steiner would lead the Department to "break with embedded practices." Chancellor Tisch's animated concerns yesterday makes clear that rethinking charter school processes is one place for him to start.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard
 

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