We appreciate the Senator recognizing "legitimate concerns" of charter school advocates, as she's quoted in the story.
In addition to the mandatory unionization, this bill would require all charter schools to be part of the public employee retirement systems which their school district employees are part, and also would require respective school district collective bargaining contracts imposed on all charters, the way they are for charters that converted from district schools.
The reason for my comments in this story is that this bill would be "crippling" to charter schools, is because it imposes a who new set of high-cost mandates to conform charters to district schools, even as charters get 30 percent less funding. Charter schools are suppose to be free of the regulatory and statutory structure imposed on district schools in exchange for a rigorous accountability system that demands higher student academic outcomes that are measurable during a limited contract period, that is, the five-year charter.
Seeking Charter Death By A Thousand Cuts
Before the ink was dry on the New York Charter Schools Act of 1998, the state legislature in 1999 passed a similar bill to impose unions on all charter schools. This bill was vetoed by then-Gov. George Pataki, who was not about to re-write legislation he just negotiated a couple months prior (and already made concessions on regarding unionization and teacher certification, for example).
Legislation of this type has floated around the legislature ever since, with Sen. Savino's bill just the latest example. Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the Chairwoman of the Education Committee, had introduced this bill earlier in the current 2009 legislative session.
The Charter Schools Act underwent several revisions in 2007 when the cap on new charter schools was doubled. The labor unions, including NYSUT and UFT, tried unsuccessfully to stop the cap lift but did get some changes in their favor, including mandatory unionization of all employees, not just teachers, in any charter school with more than 250 students in the first two years of the school, thus adding a year to this part of the statute.
Current Law Has Proven Effective
The bottom line is the New York Charter Schools Act has proven effective for students by raising achievement levels and providing a real public educational choice for parents, especially households with limited financial means. This year's state test results for English language arts are the latest evidence showing the vast majority of charters outperforming their respective school district and community school district averages.
It's long past time for state legislators to stop trying to squash this successful public education movement with proposals that only make the job of a charter school more difficult and more costly. Fending off these proposals has kept the New York Charter Schools Association busy over the years, I can attest. Charter schools and their employees should be allowed to continue to decide for themselves if they want a union (about 1 in 5 have done so), what their contracts should include, and whether they should offer and can afford the defined benefit public employee retirement plan (which many charters have done).
A better use of everyone's time is for policymakers to consider improvements to the Charter Schools Act that would serve the educational interests of children, rather than do them harm and put their school's viability at risk.
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This is good news for charter schools, and Sen. Oppenheimer should be commended.
The Post today editorialized on this issue, and also credited Oppenheimer (link). The editorial did, however, characterize her decision as a "flip-flop." I don't think that's fair.
Sen. Oppenheimer, in her capacity as chair of a committee, introduces dozens of bills for a variety of reasons, most of which do not pass. In fact, all state legislators propose hundreds of bills annually that never see the light of day. They put their names of bills either because they really want the issue addressed, or at the behest of interest groups and constituents, or because a fellow legislator or staff requested they do so. As such, legislative bills do not have the same importance or interest of the member introducing them or co-sponsoring them.
Sen. Oppenheimer is a veteran lawmaker, first elected in 1984, representing part of Westchester County. Rather than dodge the Post reporter's question with ego-driven spin, she simply stated that she looked into the issue and reconsidered the bill, saying "as it turns out, [SUNY charters] are actually some of our very best."
This is thoughtful and commendable of Sen. Oppenheimer. She listened. She reviewed the issue. And, importantly, she did not act with haste as this bill was never put on the committee's agenda for action.
We need more thoughtful legislators like this.
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"We are looking for NYSUT to take a more proactive approach to representing us," the charter school's teacher union treasurer, Christine Twaronek, told the Buffalo News. The story can be found here (LINK).
What Ms. Twaronek and her charter faculty are upset with is NYSUT selling out their interests in the recently adopted 2009-10 state budget, where the state legislature imposed a freeze on next year's charter school funding to current-year levels.
As the state's largest charter school, Applied Technologies serves just fewer than 1,600 students and was denied nearly $2.4 million thanks to NYSUT's persuading the legislature to impose the funding freeze, with a statewide impact of $50 million. Subsequently, at the urging of the New York Charter Schools Association, Governor Paterson and Senate Majority Malcolm Smith committed to restoring 60 percent of this amount (or $30 million) using other funding sources.
NYSUT continues its feeble excuse of seeking "fairness" to the state's budgeting process, which is euphemistic, bland nonsense for gutting charter funding this year, and harming its own union members which now comprise 20 percent of the state's charter schools currently in operation.
NYSUT's western New York regional director, Michael Preskop, told the paper his organization "has never been comfortable with the funding mechanism" for charter schools since it "pits charter schools against other public schools."
Yeah, Mr. Preskop, and your organization sides with those "other public schools" EVERY time against charter schools and the very teachers it purports to represent. It always has. No matter the "funding mechanism," district and charter schools will always be at some level of competition, whether the funding flows through the district, as it currently does, or if it all came directly from the state.
Interestingly, one report I received from the protest was that Mr. Preskop offered to sit and talk with the protesting teachers. But, after making his remarks to reporters, he had a change of heart and went back inside to his office, did not meet with anyone, then eventually departed the premises.
According to one observer on the scene: "The teachers did get a kick out of the fact that when the actual person who represented them at negotiations left for the day, he sort of slouched down in the driver’s seat and did not even make eye contact with anyone."
NYSUT's Conflict of Interest
This year's state budget fight amply demonstrated what has been the case since charter schools were first authorized, that is, NYSUT will side with the district schools over charters because that constitutes the vast majority of its dues paying membership, which sadly makes unionized charter teachers 2nd-class members of its organization.
Fortunately, the Charter Schools Act reaffirms the right of teachers to unionize in a challenging organization to NYSUT, which makes more obvious sense in light of the union's charter school sell-out. Most charter teachers are not unionized, and faculty from two KIPP charter schools in New York City are seeking to drop union membership, as we reported previously.
Charter schools must do right by their teachers, and teachers must bring out the best from their students. When it comes to charter schools, at least in the political arena, so should NYSUT; except it can't. It's conflicted.
This is being understood by more teachers, on opposite ends of the state.
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Crosby believes that Comptroller audits are good for transparency and accountability and opposes the lawsuit by charter school plaintiffs to stop the audits on state constitutional grounds. Williams discusses those arguments, along with the rigorous oversight demanded of charter schools by the charter authorizers, SUNY, the Board of Regents and the New York City Department of Education.
In addition to Williams' published response, The Chalkboard responded below.
An additional point that can be made to Comptroller audits is that they primarily review the past, after the horse has left the barn and the problems have already been found and often times corrected. When few if any problems are "discovered" by the Comptroller's office, auditors will instead recommend that internal controls, or some financial process be "strengthened" or that greater documentation of something occur. It is the nature of these kind of audits to find things wrong and exaggerate now and then, or make subjective judgments -- regardless of who the State Comptroller is.
As a means to correct problems, a charter school or any public entity should not rely on a Comptroller audit, which could only occur over many years, as such audits are actually rare. The Buffalo Public School District, for example, has not had a district-wide audit for years, if ever. The last time the Comptroller's office conducted a district audit was a few years ago of the District's $1 billion joint school construction fund.
The Comptroller's Office may well find plenty of legitimate problems with the Buffalo Public Schools, even though Mr. Crosby has been CFO for five years. If they don't, that would be a credit to Mr. Crosby's stewardship. If the Comptroller wants to paint an unfair picture, Mr. Crosby would be justified to respond vigorously to any such portrait.
To echo one of Joe Williams' points in the Buffalo News today, charter schools have substantial oversight from the charter authorizers, including financial oversight. If anything, this oversight has increased over time, but has been there from the beginning.
One example of this oversight was when I served at the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York, which administers SUNY's charter school responsibilities. The very first year charter schools opened, in 1999-2000, the Institute discovered during its financial oversight that the New Covenant Charter School in Albany had misappropriated school funds to cover a cash flow problem at another community organization headed by the school's board chairman.
The Institute took vigorous and immediate action, including putting the school on probation, and removing the chairman and all but one of the trustees from the school's board (for its shoddy oversight of the chairman), and getting the money restored, among other steps. Had the Institute waited years later for the Comptroller to discover this, if ever, the damage would have been done, and the money long lost.
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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.
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Mr. Crosby acknowledged in this piece that the Comptroller's office is knocking on his door, soon to audit the Buffalo district itself, a centi-million enterprise for which he's been the chief bean-counter for five years. In his timely way, Crosby says Comptroller audits are "important for transparency and accountability" and "encourages continuous improvement."
This fawning to the Comptroller's office is hardly subtle. What's worse is that after five years on the job, Mr. Crosby is serving up his predecessors for blame when the Comptroller's office finds its inevitable imperfections in the district's financial records and internal controls. After all, there is still "much work to do on the business side to overcome the many, many years of neglect," Crosby writes (emphasis mine).
I guess five years hasn't been enough for Crosby to straighten out this neglect. Look for that spin in the district's dealings with the Comptroller. As the consumate bureaucrat, we'll also soon find out if Mr. Crosby's transparent attempt to soften up the auditors and blame the past will be reflected in the audit itself.
Regarding the charter school lawsuit, we make no apology for trying correct the State Legislature and make the Comptroller adhere to the New York State Constitution, Article 5 of which circumscribes the Comptroller's authority regarding the entities that can be audited. Mr. Crosby nowhere acknowledges the Constitution, nor the arguments and case law backing our lawsuit, which makes his piece in the Buffalo News all the more vacuous.
The State Constitution is designed to limit Comptroller's auditing power to local governments and their agencies, that is, "political subdivisions" of the State. Charter schools clearly do not fall under that definition, which was acknowledged by the trial court that ruled in our favor. These constitutional limitations reflected the fact that other state agencies had regulatory and oversight authority over non-governmental entities carrying out public policy.
The Appellate Division earlier this year reversed the trial court on very simplistic grounds, stating that education is important so charter schools should be audited, and that they are "incidental" to school district expenses. This banal reasoning ignored most of the constitutional arguments and history, all of which will be reviewed by the State Court of Appeals next month when it hears our appeal.
Charter schools will continue to undergo rigorous monitoring and oversight by SUNY, the state Education Department (on behalf of the Board of Regents) and the New York City school district which has authorized charter schools. This oversight includes financial oversight and reviewing internal controls. Mr. Crosby doesn't think they do enough, saying its "preposterous" for me to suggest otherwise.
If he really believes that, then he should demand charter authorizers do more, beginning with himself, who oversees the two charter schools approved directly by the Buffalo Board of Education. To punt this to the Comptroller is not a substitute for proper financial oversight that authorizers are responsible to conduct.
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That is the attitude on full public display by Merryl Tisch, not even one month as the new Chancellor of the state Board of Regents (formally, the Chancellor of the "University of the State of New York").
Chancellor Tisch is taking her formal, lofty title way too seriously.
Daily News reporter Meredith Kolodner reports today that Chancellor Tisch is backing legislation (A.7687/S.3875) to remove the State University of New York's ability to approve charter schools without the approval of the Regents (that is, Merryl Tisch's).
A bill has been introduced in both houses of legislature by no less than the chairwomen of the respective education committees, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan of Queens and Senator Suzi Oppenheimer of Westchester.
"SUNY is an entity not sensitive to the issues in the community here," the Chancellor told the Daily News, who apparently is referring to areas of New York City.
What "sensitivity" is she speaking? According to the story, the example she gave was the recent "uproar" of parents reacting to the City Department of Education's plan to close low-performing district schools and put charter schools in their space; charters approved by SUNY. The problem with this example is it was the City DOE, not SUNY, that provoked the fight over space. In fact, the subsequent hearing on charter schools by the City Council directed its consternation for this episode at the City. SUNY was never mentioned because it had nothing to do with this example of lack of "sensitivity."
The reality is that SUNY has approved 32 of the City's 78 charter schools currently in operation this year, with 11 on deck this fall and in 2010. Not only have these schools exceeded the average pass rates of the City's district schools on state exams, but City parents can't get enough of them.
Chancellor Tisch should have visited Harlem night last month at the Fort Washington Street Armory, where City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith addressed thousands of parents at a lottery, trying to gain admission for their children into one of the four Harlem Success Academies operated by the Success Charter Network, headed by former City Councilwoman, Eva Moskowitz. (Three of the four SCN charters were approved by -- gasp! -- SUNY!)
The only lack of sensitivity going on that night was the lack of available charter seats for students in upper Manhattan!
The reality is that for ten years, there have been two statewide entities with authority to approve charter schools: SUNY and the Board of Regents. This critical feature of New York's charter school law has worked well -- too well for those remaining anachronistic legislators and Regents who can't bring themselves to accept independent charter schools as part of the public educational mix.
The Regents have always resented the fact that SUNY has the ability to approve a charter school over their lofty heads. As public meetings go, Regents meetings are not subtle, and the frustration level of some board members can range between humorous and embarrassing when it comes to this important nuance of the state's charter law, to wit: they can't suppress a SUNY-approved charter they don't like. Regents want to control all, but can't.
Regent, now Chancellor, Merryl Tisch is neither humorous nor embarrassing. She's a dedicated, smart and savvy operator who for the most part has embraced charter schools and supported nearly every proposal coming from SUNY over the years, at least until about two years ago when the Regents and state Education Department began playing more bureaucratic hardball over charter schools (more on that later this week).
Now that Tisch heads the Board of Regents, she's making a power grab that is unsubtle and unseemly. The question is, why? What educational or child-centered objective would be served if she got her way? The reality is that if the Regents had, or gained, complete control over chartering, there would be far fewer charter schools and way less opportunity for children in those "communities" for which Chancellor Tisch feigns concern.
The new Chancellor, and long-time Regent, Merryl Tisch has much bigger concerns in public education than the fact that SUNY can approve charter schools. She should refocus her energies.
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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.
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In March the teachers from both schools issued a joint statement announcing its intentions to decertify. Nary a peep was heard from the UFT in reaction. The same UFT shouts from the rooftops with press releases when teachers decide to join its union. Instead, the UFT is arguing before PERB to block the decertification effort at KIPP, even as its Edwise blog insults those teachers by claiming they somehow were organized by KIPP management, as though grown-up faculty can't make their own decisions.
Interestingly, the KIPP teachers decided this move last March -- before the UFT-NYSUT supported funding freeze on charter schools was adopted in the state budget. That anti-charter move is all the more reason to drop membership from any kind of union taking such a harmful position.
If the "freedom of assembly" means anything in the state and federal constitutions, PERB must honor the requests of these teachers to "assemble" apart from the UFT. That UFT refuses to accept the wishes of KIPP teachers is shameful, and a typical, unceasing power-play.
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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.