The school argued that the state's Civil Service Law governing collective bargaining, (aka, the Taylor Law), required teachers to formally recognize the union as its bargaining agent. But the Charter Schools Act says if a school's enrollment exceeds 250 students at any point in the first year (since 2007, now the first two years) you must be represented by the same union that represents the teachers in the school district where the charter is located.
Niagara Charter School inadvertently went over the enrollment limit during its first year, and the NYSUT local came knocking on the door to "represent" the teachers. The teachers, however, weren't interested and sent a letter to the union declining the offer -- "thanks, but no thanks." Well, the union wasn't offering anything. It was demanding membership as the law mandated.
Teachers at the Niagara Charter School are already paid competitively and have two seats on the school's governing board of trustees. They didn't need to be taxed by NYSUT to bargain for what they already got without them, let alone subsidize NYSUT's anti-charter school political agenda.
At the behest of NYSUT, Education Law requires that a charter school must be unionized in certain circumstances, and when Niagara crossed one of these lines, they became unionized, like it or not. Adults should be thought of as capable of making up their own minds about unionization, but NYSUT's political pull and relentless appetite for members and money got the legislature to force them onto schools this way. This law is purely about benefiting the adults working in public education, not about the children who are supposed to be served.
The Niagara Charter School's teachers can still decide to drop NYSUT by going to the Public Employee Relations Board to decertify, same as is being done by the teachers at KIPP Academy in the Bronx and KIPP Infinity in Brooklyn.
The Cruelest Irony: Paying Union to Cut Teacher Jobs
What's more is that after the legislature cut next year's charter school funding at the behest of NYSUT, it is more evident than ever before that the Charter Schools Act imposes a blatant conflict of interest upon employees of charter schools. This is because it forces them in these circumstances to be members of the same union representing like positions in the district where the charter school is located. As a result, the same union represents employees in seperate organizations directly competing for students and public dollars tied to the those students, and sides with one over the other when their interests conflict in state government policymaking.
The legislature's charter funding cut proves the obvious: NYSUT will always side politically in the state Capitol with their district teacher membership over their charter teacher membership -- every time.
That means, for example, that Niagara Charter School teachers will lose more than $400,000 next school year to the Niagara Falls district (also NYSUT members) where most of the charter students live since the district now doesn't have to pay the charter school that money -- thanks to NYSUT.
In Buffalo, the school district gets to keep more than $10 million in charter school money next year, and boasted about it in Thursday's Buffalo News. Five of those same charter schools have teachers in NYSUT's union. Your union dues at work.
What an irony: the failing Buffalo school district gets to keep charter school money thanks to NYSUT's lobbying the state legislature, which will cause NYSUT's dues-paying teachers in charter schools to face layoffs.
To charter teachers, the NYSUT message has been clear: pay no attention to those union leaders behind the curtain. Richard Iannuzzi and Randi Weingarten keep insisting their union "supports charter schools." You're suppose to just keep believing that and keep those dues coming. You know, "In Solidarity," and all that stuff.
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D.C.-based writer, Meghan Clyne, profiles the real world effect of the funding cut on the Elmwood Village Charter School, a high-performing school in Buffalo ("An Attack on Kids") http://www.nypost.com/seven/04142009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/an_attack_on_kids_164309.htm
The lead editorial continues to make hay out of the clumsy scripting by the United Federation of Teachers of the City Council members' questions at its April 6th hearing on charter schools, including a telling imagery of UFT president, Randi Weingarten as "puppet master" ("How to Buy A City Council"). Ouch.
Declining State Tax Collections
Adding salt to the charter wound, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy research organization tied to SUNY Albany's Rockefeller Graduate School of Public Affairs, issued a report today documenting the sharply declining state sales tax revenue and other tax collections in the fourth quarter of 2008 and equally doleful indications for early 2009. The Institute says the drop sales tax collections is the largest in 50 years. Sales tax activity is one of the most sensitive or "elastic" indicators of economic activity, as it is tied to consumer behavior of non-food items subject to sales tax.
The report also shows (Table 7) that New York State has the fifth worst "Indexes of Economic Activity" among the fifty states -- meaning the economic isn't very good in New York, especially when compared to 45 other states.
The Rockefeller Institute's report can be found here: http://www.rockinst.org/newsroom/news_releases/2009/2009-04-14-sales_tax_collections_worst_in_50_years.aspx
Economy Connected to Charters
The state of New York's economy and near-term outlook has a direct connection to charter schools with the bridge being the state budget enacted barely two weeks ago.
As the economy co continues to perform poorly, so will state revenue collections. This could force the state legislature to revisit the enacted budget to make further spending cuts, similar to what was done last year. Spending cuts would be a certainty in such circumstances since the legislature already significantly hiked taxes in a manner not seen since the early 1970s.
Will charter schools be affected? Considering the $51 million cut for 2009-10, charter schools have already borne a disproportionate funding cut. In addition, education is usually the last item that would see cuts if the legislature were to revisit the state budget, especially since school aid went up so modestly and was spared of any mid-year budget cuts last year.
Ominously, however, the economic and state revenue situation may not bode well for any kind of funding restoration of the $51 million to charter schools if the state continues this hemorrhage money.
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In summary, Gyurko's study, co-authored with Robin Jacobowitz, identified a funding gap where New York City district schools received about 5 percent more in operating dollars than charter schools accounting for the fact that charters got some operating support on an in-kind basis (transportation, health services, etc.) and that district schools were eligible for categorical funding while charters were not.
Since this time, categorical funding streams have mostly been folded into "foundation" aid for school districts, and spent out as an "approved operating expense" that translates to the charter school funding formula.
Gyurko argues that there is effective operating funding parity for charter and district schools in New York City, and effective parity for those schools in free, district-owned space. (This discussion does not translate to charter schools outside New York City since they do not generally receive comparable support provided by the City DOE.)
He does acknowledge that for charter schools in New York City that operate in private space, without the benefit of free district space, the funding gap obviously remains since charters do not receive facilities funding.
In a roundabout way, Jonathan's high-minded essay is designed to justify the UFT's and NYSUT's position to freeze charter school funding for next year at present levels, which the state legislature adopted earlier this month with the enactment of the 2009-10 state budget.
The legislature's action remains a profound injustice to charter schools, and Gyurko's erstwhile justification for freezing charter funding omits several key factors:
1) Charter funding and state school aid to districts are apples-to-oranges; it is not the same. For 10 years charter schools received funding based on district operating expenses per pupil which is influenced, but not correspondent with, school aid for districts. Freezing part of state aid, this being "foundation aid" which is two-thirds of state aid, doesn't mean school districts will freeze overall spending since they can tap into other sources, including federal and local revenues.
2) Not all funding "freezes" are alike. In New York City's case, foundation aid is about one-third of its school budget, while charter funding from district student tuition payments amounts to 90 percent or more of a typical charter school budget. This disproportionate reliance by charter schools on this single source makes a freeze much more crippling to its operations than the effect of freezing only part of school aid.
3) School districts have taxing power, either directly or, in the case of the Big 5 districts, through the municipality's taxing authority. Therefore, if they chose, districts can and do often make up for state aid reductions with higher taxes. Charter schools do not have taxing power and would have to raise private philanthropy -- a much tougher prospect in the economic downturn.
4) The charter funding freeze actually cuts its 2009-10 funding, which will widen the funding inequity between district and charter schools. New York City and other school district operating spending has gone up sharply in recent years, yet charter schools will not benefit from these spending increases next year, as they were entitled, thanks to the funding cut of its 2009-10 amounts at the urging of UFT-NYSUT. Yet, if district spending declines next year, that will translate via the formula to charter schools in 2010 and 2011 -- the very "double-cut" that has been feared by charter advocates.
5) As for all the charter schools in district space, for most this is a tenuous existence that can be undone by a less-accommodating mayor or schools chancellor. At best, it is a stop-gap solution for many charter schools that cannot afford expensive real estate in the some of the neediest neighborhoods in the City.
6) Pension costs, which are dictated by actuarial assumptions, are a rising burden for both district and charter schools especially after the sharp decline in the stock market. For those charters that opted into the public employee, guaranteed benefit systems, these costs will go up without the schools getting the higher funding to reflect district spending. The five City charter schools that converted from district schools are especially hard hit (all of whose faculty remain UFT represented), yet won't have the funding increase to adequately cover this expense. Something will have to give, including likely layoffs.
Rather than explaining away its anti-charter school legislative agenda, the UFT should be advocating for real funding parity for charter schools. Even if you accept Jonathan Gyurko's assumptions, the absence of facilities aid remains the primary factor driving the funding inequity that disadvantages charters by as much as 30 percent or more compared to districts.
State facilities aid could put within reach private space for more charter schools, or could allow the City or any school district a source of lease revenue for allowing charters to use district space.
The teacher unions' opposition to charter school funding formula growth for next year remains a serious and costly error, and a betrayal of their dues-paying faculty members working in charter schools.
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The Daily News and New York Post had a ball with that one, with the Post placing it on the wood. Credit for the story, however, belongs to Elizabeth Green of the Gotham Schools, an online news outlet covering the City education issues. Green was the education reporter for the defunct New York Sun, and now is cranking out superb material for the web.
The UFT's spoon feeding of the City Council reveals a number of wider and disturbing truths.
First, the union maintains a very adversarial stance toward the City Department of Education so much so that it was determined to make them look bad just because the Department supports charter schools. You would think the UFT and the DOE would be on the same side, if you accept the UFT's claim to support charters (see #4, below).
Second, the UFT must not think too highly of the brainpower of the members of the City Council or the staff to the Council, believing it had to do their job for them. Rather than helping the Council do its job, the UFT managed to make fools of them. Nice going.
Third, passing questions to the Council reveals the spot-on truth of what Eva Moskowitz said in her presentation that same day when she described the "union-political-education complex" that exists in the City that serves one another's interests at the expense of providing better education for children. This take-off on Ike's "military-industrial complex" attack on the defense industry's selfish alliance with Defense Department bureaucrats indeed rings true with education politics in New York City.
Fourth, the UFT's passing questions puts a lie to its claim to support charter schools. Its push for the state legislature to cut next year's funding was evidence aplenty; as was its opposition to the cap lift in 2007 and its support for needless, duplicative and unconstitutional Comptroller audits of charter schools.
This all seems so unnecessary and counterproductive. The UFT runs a very good pair of charter schools in Brooklyn, serving grades K-8. They didn't have to be part of this reform effort yet chose to join in to the annoyance of its state parent, NYSUT. That took some guts and innovation on Randi Weingarten's part.
Why, then, would the UFT act in ways contrary to the interests of its own charter schools? It makes no sense until you realize that charter union teachers will always be outnumbered by district union teachers. When a conflict arises between districts and charters, UFT and NYSUT will side with a majority of its members - every time.
This reality should not be lost on charter faculty who are members of the UFT or NYSUT. Vapid assurances from Ms. Weingarten or Richard Iannuzzi are not enough. They need to join charter advocates to restore the funding that was taken from charter schools for next year. Pro-charter deeds matter; soundbites about "solidarity" don't cut it anymore.
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The Committee Chairman, Robert Jackson of Washington Heights, gaveled in at 1:00 p.m. DOE officials, led by Deputy Chancellor, Chris Cerf, were on the hot seat for the next three hours. I presented for the NY Charter Schools Association around 6:00 p.m. along with James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center. By 9:30 p.m., it was done (and I was already on a northbound Amtrak train back to Albany).
My rundown on the players in this drama, though hardly exhaustive, follows:
Committee Chairman, Robert Jackson: Impressive all day as he maintained order, discouraged clapping and any other inappropriate behavior. He held the Department's feet to the fire, and gave everyone a chance to present. Jackson has never been a charter school enthusiast, but appears to keep an open mind and also seems to be acknowledging that they are more and more popular, especially in his upper Manhattan council district. He was clearly bothered by recent parent meetings involving the closure of P.S. 194 in Harlem and the division between district and charter parents that was on display at this meeting, events which were the backdrop to the hearing itself. Mr. Jackson also attended the ribbon-cutting on the Democracy Prep Charter School building last September in Harlem. That's progress.
Eva Moskowitz: A tiger. She is afraid of no one, and minced no words. She is a former City Councilwoman, who chaired the Education Committee, and is now head of the Success Charter Network that operates four charter schools in Harlem. In her presentation to the Committee, she extolled competition in public education, called for closing bad schools (which the Committee resisted) and put the tension and acrimony right where it belongs: on the "union-political-educational complex" that fights competition in public education, even if it means having bad schools doing harm to students indefinitely waiting for the "fix." This take-0ff on President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" was apt.
Councilwoman Helen Foster: This Bronx Councilwoman displayed a attitude toward the four "white" all-male DOE senior staff presenting to the Committee, and that she was at least hoping for a "token" to be part of the DOE presentation. Besides insulting fellow African-Americans, Ms. Foster no doubt forgot that at least two prior directors of the DOE's charter school office were accomplished African-American females who went onto better positions, rather than remain with the Department.
Elizabeth Green: The crack reporter for the Gotham Schools website, she reported that the United Federation of Teachers was feeding questions to Council members during the Q & A with the City DOE. Ms. Green has provided a revealing anecdote of the bigger picture: that the UFT calls the shots with most City elected officials. This is especially pathetic in that City Council members aren't stupid, and don't need anyone feeding them questions to ask. Her story also revealed more evidence that makes a mockery of UFT's public mask of supporting charters.
Leo Casey: UFT's Vice President (one of them, anyway) invoked the late Albert Shanker, former UFT and AFT president, a great patriot who was one of the original founders of the charter school idea, i.e., deregulation in exchange for accountability. This claim to charter fame is typically used by unions to imply some moral authority for the present-day UFT to rail against anything about charters it doesn't like. For example, Casey hates that fact that charter management organizations, which he mistakenly called charter "maintenance" organizations, are opening concentrations of schools in the south Bronx, Harlem and Central Brooklyn. To which I say, good for the students in those needy areas. It's odd and unfortunate that Casey and many others resent "outsiders" (which are a very small number, anyway) coming to the City to operate great schools, which better serves students, brings more private dollars to public education, and provides more jobs for City residents. The City and State of New York need more people like that, not fewer.
Nicholas Tishuk: The Director of Programs and Accountability at Renaissance Charter School, is a passionate believer in education, district or charter, and works at one of the City's very best schools, located in Jackson Heights. He was concise and focused to the Committee late yesterday, and spoke specifically to the state legislature's funding cut to his school of more than $500,000. He also opposed the City Council's resolution 1889 calling on the state legislature to make siting charter schools even more difficult. Renaissance is on the Gotham Schools blog today feeling betrayed by the unions over their role in the legislature's gutting of charter funding for next year. No doubt this view is widespread, if unspoken by others.
James Merriman: CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, reminded the Committee that the two systems in the public school district are not district versus charter, but public schools in upscale neighborhoods versus those in low-income neighborhoods. Such as been the case for decades, and its charter schools that are bringing high-quality public schooling to those poorer, less-equal areas of the City. Bullseye.
Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo: This Bronx Councilwoman is generally a supporter of charter schools, but made no secret of her dislike of Eva Moskowitz, saying that since she had no personal relationship with Eva, she could get tough with her. Tough is one thing, rudeness is another. Ms. Arroyo didn't bother masking her contempt. One example was when she demanded to know where Eva lived, since she didn't believe Eva's statement that she lived in Harlem. Chairman Jackson had to intervene to end this silly, disrespectful line of questioning.
Councilwoman Melinda Katz: Queens Councilwoman was fired up, going after the City DOE officials. She may have been one with the UFT scripted questions. There was a complete disconnect between her and Deputy Chancellor Cerf, as though they were talking past each other. When Katz was done with her five minutes of questioning, she vanished for the rest of the day. She said what she wanted to say, no matter the response of DOE. Too bad.
Councilman John Liu: This Queens Councilman tried his best imitation of Law & Order's Jack McCoy. The Councilman should practice a better line of questioning, which was flawed and embarrassing. For instance, he was none too impressed with the Quinnipiac poll showing more than 70 percent of City registered voters favored more charter schools, dismissing this by saying that "100 percent" of people want better schools. Wow! Ya scored one there, Councilman!
Eric Nadelstern: Chief Schools Officer for the City DOE, a 38-year veteran of the City schools, which means his pension probably would exceed his salary, if he chose to retire. Good thing he's not retired, as he was a cool, articulate defender of the Department's policies and motives throughout the afternoon, often diffusing uptight Council members' questioning. Mr. Nadelstern also was a founder of Middle College Charter School, a conversion charter that had to convert back to a district school after a new Chancellor, Harold Levy, took over for Rudy Crew in 2000, and welched on the district's prior commitments to the conversion charter by cutting its support.
Me (Peter Murphy): My focus was to remind the Committee that in 2007 the state Legislature looked at the issue of placing charters in district buildings, and mandated new notice and public hearing requirements and longer review and approval timelines for charters. If the City Council really wants to urge the legislature to change the charter school law, it should request charters get state facility funding to equalize resources with district schools. That way, more charters can afford independent space in the City and be less reliant on residing in district space; or, pay the district for leasing space, thereby generating more state funding to the City's coffers.
Students from Democracy Prep Charter School: They presented toward the end, in the evening after I was howeward bound. I heard they were fantastic, and they waited patiently all afternoon and evening in the service of charter schools. They got quite the civics lesson in the process. They attend a great school in huge demand. They are blessed and know it, and wanted the Committee to know it, too.
Charter Sitings Ain't Broken, Need Little Fixing
By the time I departed the hearing after six and one-half hours, it seems to me this fuss about charters is overblown. The City Department of Education arguably overreached when it proposed to close low-performing schools, including PS 194, and then put charter schools in their place. That makes sense, but it's caused a backlash and was imprudent to attempt simultaneously. With the UFT-ACLU lawsuit in the works, the City backed down. This incident is one of a handful of incidents where the placement of charters caused community noises that got the attention of elected officials. These, however, are the exceptions, not the rule.
Charter siting has gone extremely well and free of rancor, overall. It's not broken and doesn't need fixing beyond the City going the extra mile in making sure that every politician and their community board/council/education self-important person is given some more heads-up.
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That's just what the state Appellate Division Court did today when it ruled that the state Department of Labor-imposed prevailing wage mandate found in Article 8 of the state Labor Law did not, in fact, apply to charter schools. The court struck down this 2007 edict by Labor Commissioner, Patricia Smith, who capriciously decided to impose this high-cost, union-scale pay requirement on charter schools. Commissioner Smith's "order" came in a September 2007 letter to the New York Charter Schools Association that said henceforth her Department would enforce the payment of such wages on contractors performing capital and service work for charters.
This brazen move ignored the plain language of the Education Law section 2854, part of the Charter Schools Act that exempts charters from all laws, rules and regulations except for those governing health, safety or civil rights. The Department of Labor, back in 2000, during the Pataki Administration, understood the obvious: that prevailing wage mandates did not apply to charters schools, especially in the absence of state building aid for school districts.
Commissioner Smith also ignored existing case law in which the state Supreme Court in Onondaga County ruled in 2000 that, yes, charter schools are exempt from prevailing wage mandates. Even when she imposed the mandate, she didn't even bother with any rule-making procedure or public comment period. She simply told charters to pay them, or else.
Ever since the New York Charter Schools Act of 1998 was enacted, labor union organizations have tried to get the state legislature to impose prevailing wage requirements on charter schools to give them a state-imposed mandate to get higher pay without negotiating a fair-market price as is done in the private sector.
Gov. George Pataki, who got the charter school law enacted, was certainly friendly to organized labor, approving card check legislation and project labor agreements, for example. But he protected charter schools from such high-cost mandates, recognizing their resources were limited. By 2007, the unions had an even stronger ally in Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
As state Attorney General in 2000, Spitzer issued an opinion stating that prevailing wage did apply to charter schools. This specious reasoning around Education Law 2854 was drafted by (guess who?) ...Patricia Smith, at that time an Assistant Attorney General to Spitzer. The Supreme Court rejected the AG office's opinion.
Seven years later, behind closed doors during budget negotiations, Governor Spitzer attempted to impose prevailing wage as part of the 2007-08 state budget deal -- the same deal where, ironically, he got the cap on new charter schools increased from 100 to 200. The Senate refused to go along with the wage mandate.
When the former Governor didn't get his way legislatively, several months later his Labor Commissioner, Pat Smith, performed the deed with a pen stroke. Our government at work.
The Brighter Choice Foundation, Albany Prep Charter School, and the NY Charter Schools Association sued, as did the Carl C. Icahn Charter School in a separate case, later combined.
In May 2008, state Supreme Court in Albany County upheld with the Department's position and ruled against the charter schools in a craven and vacuous decision that was ripe for reversal.
Today, the Appellate Court did just that. Justice and the rule of law, and practical common sense, has been restored.
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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.