Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chancellor Tisch Speaks to Charter Schools Conference

Last Saturday at the New York Annual Statewide Charter Schools Conference, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch addressed nearly 400 attendees during the luncheon. Actually, her presentation came in the form of a "conversation" with Charter Schools Association president, Bill Phillips, who posed questions and raised issues for her to address.

This was Merryl Tisch's first appearance at the charter conference. She said many positive things about charter schools and urged them to continue their strong academic record. Phillips raised the issue of New York's competitiveness to secure federal Race to the Top funding and the need to improve the charter law. Several other states have raised their charter cap, while New York has stood still -- and even went backwards with this year's funding freeze.

The Chancellor responded by saying "everything is on the table" as far as making improvements to the charter law, including raising the cap on the number of charters, soon to be exhausted on the Regents side. She also said she was concerned that charter school operators and representatives were uninterested in doing school "turnarounds" as part of a plan for the state's Race to the Top application as several low-performing high schools are expected to be designated by the state Education Department for this purpose.

While not speaking for the charter school movement on this issue, I believe any attempt at a high school turnaround effort, by a charter school or any new operator, should be on the minimal condition that new management be able to hire new staff and be exempt from the district's union contracts; in other words, create a new charter school with perhaps a special admission preference for students from the "turnaround" school (and which will necessitate a cap lift). The ability to manage changes without such encumbrances will make a positive turnaround more achievable.

Still Looking to Clip SUNY's Wings?
Chancellor Tisch also took questions from the conference attendees. First up was Roxanne Ashley, the head of the highly successful Roosevelt Charter School on Long Island, which was approved by SUNY in 2000 over the Regents' objection. Ms. Ashley was concerned about the Chancellor's support for the Regents having sole control over chartering. Tisch subtley demurred.

Last spring, shortly after being elected Chancellor by the Regents, Tisch came out in favor of legislation to remove SUNY's ability to approve charters on its own and require Regents' approval for all SUNY-approved charters. This bill provoked visceral opposition in the charter community and critical editorials. Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, the sponsor of this bill in the state Senate, soon withdrew her support.

Still, Chancellor Tisch gave strong indication she remains supportive of clipping SUNY's chartering autonomy by having the Regents control chartering. For example, she voiced concern about SUNY's recent approval, over the objection of the Regents, of what she described as a pre-kindergarten program at one of the Harlem Success Academies operated by Eva Moskowitz. Though Tisch favors charters serving pre-k students, she said the law doesn't allow it. SUNY, on the other hand, approved it as a kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, which allowed under state Education law. With all due respect to Chancellor Tisch, two charter authorizers are better than one.

A New State Education Department in the Works
Aside from the simmering disagreement on charter authorizing, Chancellor Tisch was encouraging and impressive at the conference luncheon, especially on the new direction at the state Education Department -- beginning with the Regents superb appointment of Commissioner David Steiner and his Senior Deputy, John King (himself a former charter school operator).

She has directed this new team to conduct a comprehensive "regulatory audit" of the Department's requirements on all public schools to free them up to innovate, which is desperately needed and welcome. She also touched on providing a quicker, more streamlined review of charter proposals. More boldly, she is interested in redesigning teacher certification. Commissioner Steiner has a reform track record in this area from when he was Dean of the Education School at Hunter College.

The charter "conversation" with Chancellor Tisch took a welcome step forward on Saturday. No doubt it will continue.

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.