Does $700 Million Matter to the UFT?
The purpose of the event is to present proposals to "reform" the state's charter school law. This comes after the state Board of Regents--normally quite deferential to the UFT--approved several pro-charter recommendations at its meeting this month, including raising the charter cap and providing facilities funding. Not all 16 Regents are pro-charter school, but they all understood that these and other education reform provisions are essential for New York to position itself to win competitive Race to the Top funding from the Obama administration. Another $700 million or so for New York would come in very handy nowadays, and its something the UFT should keep in mind since its own members stand to benefit from this money.
Will the UFT follow the Regents example? If history is any guide, it will propose poison-pill measures to weaken the Charter Schools Act, while trying to disguise them as reform. We've seen this over the years in the form of malevolent legislation introduced by its allied legislators.
UFT proposals also should be considered in their context -- it doesn't generally like charters schools, which is their competition. The union's proposals should be understood with that premise, which makes a mockery of its use of the "reform" label.
This whole anti-charter exercise by the UFT is anti-climatic, to say the least. More importantly, state policymakers should not risk losing or diminishing the federal Race to the Top money by going backwards at the behest of the establishment and diluting on the Charter Schools Act. President Obama is all too aware of the unions dislike for charter schools, yet he has been clear and almost audacious about promoting charter schools in the public system. New York should follow his leadership.
"Separate but Equal" Ugliness by UFT - So Unnecessary
Finally, the UFT's announcement of its event includes the ugly phrase "separate but equal system" as it describes charter schools. Are they serious? This highly-charged terminology is offensive and deliberately polarizing. It has no place in the charter school discussion or the UFT's lexicon. The union's leaders chose these words not by accident, but I suspect as an attempt to smear charter schools with an oppressive part of American history as the UFT looks to turn supportive state legislators against charter schools.
Disagree with charter schools all day long, but this demagoguery by the UFT is shameful and has no place in any policy debate.
for The Chalkboard
Requesting a delay in the hearing of your case may mean the impact of the Governor's withholding may not be so "immediate and severe" after all. The school aid amount of the Governor's payment delay amounted to $146 million, of which $69 million was for New York City. Keep in mind that school districts outside the Big 5 cities get a huge chunk of their annual revenue by October 1st when its property tax levies are due. So, a delay of up to $70 million spread across the 685 or so school districts doesn't add up to much, especially when most of their property tax revenue is earning interest in the bank.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the Governor was right in withholding state aid to localities and districts, as The Chalkboard has written previously. I believed the better approach would have been to for the state to borrow on a short-term basis to deal with its cash flow. Now, I can respect the Governor's unwillingness to take that borrowing route since such action opens up a potentially ominous Pandora's box, reminiscent of the mid-1970s when New York City was issuing bonds to pay for operating costs. No doubt the Paterson administration would rather take the hit on delaying payments instead of borrowing. Fair enough.
Payment Delay is Not Refusal
NYSUT and the School Boards Association are understandably frustrated that the executive branch's withholding of funds came after the legislature (the Senate, in particular) rejected mid-year cuts in school aid. However, delaying payments is different from impounding them; that is, Gov. Paterson has said the funds will be spent when sufficient cash materializes, so he's not refusing to spend it forever. This makes court intervention a more murky endeavor since it is not uncommon for the state government to sit on invoices and delay payments.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin told Daily Politics that his organization would not drop its lawsuit until they were given assurances by the Governor that the money owed to school districts will be paid. No doubt that is being discussed even now.
The bottom line is that school districts have a right to this money, and that the Governor should want to avoid a court ordering him to cut the checks. The executive branch has considerable state constitutional powers for managing the state's finances, but courts also have been willing to intervene. It's in every one's interest to settle this issue rapidly by paying the school districts and making the litigation go away. I expect with next month's state revenue the matter will become moot before the release of the Governor's Executive Budget three weeks from now in mid-January. That proposal will have plenty of doleful news without this litigation hanging around.
for The Chalkboard
The state Assembly, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, will have to weigh in at some point. Earlier this month, he said he was reviewing the Regents recommended education reform agenda.
Sen. Sampson spoke yesterday from his office in the state Capitol to several reporters, including the New York Observer state reporter, Jimmy Vielkind, who reports here.
Days of Wine & Roses Really is Over
Sampson also had an admonition about state finances. Though the Senate legislatively blocked the Governor's attempt to impose mid-year school aid cuts, education reductions for the 2010-11 school year he considered "appropriate." Sampson said "there are going to be cuts and you're going to need to figure out a way to deal with them."
To paraphrase former Governor Hugh Carey (circa '75), "The days of wine and roses are over."
Sampson spoke of the difficulty in "managing the expectations of the advocates" in the past year; that is, those of us who advocate for more public resources. Consider this sit-down with reporters the beginning of his attempt to manage expectations for 2010 to more realistic levels in light of the state's perilous fiscal condition.
Expect a rough budget year for 2010.
for The Chalkboard
UFT Emperor Hath No Clothes
Some things you just can't have both ways.
The teacher union protest this week (here) at the Merrick Academy-Queens Public Charter School in Jamaica, led by United Federation of Teacher's president, Michael Mulgrew, is a farce thanks to the union leadership's two-faced behavior in the past year toward charter school funding. Thanks to the union's own political lobbying, this school lost about $496,000 - depending on the vicissitudes of enrollment.
That amounts to about $11,000 per unionized staff, which would have covered multi-year individual pay raises.
Such pay hikes are not happening now because the Merrick Academy, and every other charter school, lost funding because the state legislature heeded the call last spring of the New York State United Teachers and its largest chapter, the UFT, to "adjust downward" (i.e., "cut") the charter funding formula for this 2009-10 school year. So, it's a little much for union leadership to now feign outrage at a charter school for refusing to give what the union already took from its budget.
NYSUT's Executive Vice President, Alan Lubin, urged the legislature to cut charter school funding on the basis that state "Foundation Aid" to school districts was expected to be frozen. Mr. Lubin, with a UFT representative sitting adjacent to him, told the legislature:
"Charter school tuition payments should be adjusted downward by the same percentage that a public school district's state aid is reduced should a reduction become enacted" (emphasis mine).
NYSUT and the UFT got its way, as Gov. Paterson and the legislature bought their line of erroneously conflating state aid to school districts with the charter funding formula - a completely apples-to-oranges mistake. State Foundation Aid, which was frozen at prior-year levels, is a subset category of school district aid that amounts to only about one-third of New York City's revenue for public schools. The City, if it chose, could make up the funding loss from such a freeze by cutting other expense areas, raising any number of local taxes, or substituting federal Stimulus funding.
Charter Funding Formula Inadequate
No such luck for charter schools. By contrast, the charter funding formula is life-or-death for these schools as it comprises 90-plus percent of its revenue. Charters can't raise taxes or cut some other non-education programs or departments.
Compounding this problem is that charter schools do not receive state facilities money and instead must use the charter funding formula, which is derived from district per pupil operating expenses, to pay lease and building costs. Tying up operating funds to pay for a building means less for employee salaries and program expenses for students. In the case of Merrick, this school secured its own building and is not sharing free City district space.
No CFE for Charter Schools
The charter funding formula this year also would have captured the recent state aid increases and school district spending growth resulting from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity litigation. These increases in education revenue and spending already began with school districts and were due subsequently to the charter school students (and faculty) this year by flowing through the charter formula as a result of its two-year lag. Turns out, in effect, NYSUT and the UFT were all for CFE funding - except for charter schools, which is unfair to those students and faculty that have the same rightful claim.
The Merrick Academy board is right to bring up the UFT-demanded charter funding freeze. And, the school cannot make up for that funding loss, much less increase teacher pay with money it does not have thanks to the teacher union's contrarian political activity in the state Capitol.
Union Heads: Look in Thy Mirror!
Michael Mulgrew's union soapbox activity in protesting Merrick Academy this week shows he lives in complete denial of his organization's own culpability for this funding fiasco. His member teachers paying him dues are now reaping the bitter fruits. Further, Mulgrew's attempts to change the subject and scapegoat the hated management company is a fatuous excuse for the inability to deliver higher paychecks he promised for these teachers. This should fool no one. The management company, Victory Schools, Inc., has a legitimate contract that was part of the school's charter approval by the state and for which it delivers a range of services, including the massive start-up and facility expenses it undertook when the school opened.
As The Chalkboard is written (e.g., here), charter school teachers need to be fully informed of their union's political activity and get past its campaign literature and media soundbites. The union is representing both district and charter teachers whose schools are in competition to some degree, including for diminishing public funds. This should be clearly understood by non-union and union faculty in charter schools--who are vastly outnumbered by their district colleagues--especially given that we are on the eve of a new round of state budget-making in Albany.
Charter teachers deserve better than to be put in this position of being told one thing locally by their union, while its higher-ups conduct unfriendly charter business in Albany. Protesting the charter school leadership for trying to remain fiscally sound is misdirected; look instead to the man on that proverbial soapbox with the bullhorn.
for The Chalkboard
Tisch supports raising the statutory cap on the number of charter schools, which was part of the Regents education reform agenda adopted this month. The Regents never mentioned how high the cap should be lifted, and Tisch herself would not let Ms. Benjamin pin her down on a number. But, Education Commissioner David Steiner acknowledged that doubling the cap to 400 would earn New York more points on the federal scoring criteria for a discretionary Race to the Top grant, and that every point matters in this competition. The NYSUT Executive V.P., Alan Lubin, said this would be "ridiculous," perhaps without realizing details of the federal criteria. (The Chalkboard commented on Lubin's remarks and explained the federal RttT guidelines here.)
Tisch knows that charter schools usually drive the teacher unions crazy, so she always treads carefully on the subject by using vocabulary like "thoughtful" when discussing a cap lift, or doing it "thoughtfully," etc.
Context Matters: More Charters Takes Years to Approve
Tisch also made the critical contextual point, as reported in Daily Politics: "[Tisch] also noted it took five or six years for the state to reach the 200 limit and that this was done in a graduated manner - something that perhaps could be done again."
Exactly. I've made this point numerous times (e.g., here); that is, just because the charter cap gets lifted doesn't mean the new number of available charters gets awarded imminently. It takes a while, as it should, since the process for obtaining approval of a charter school typically involves years of development to meet the time-consuming and rigorous criteria established by SUNY and the Regents.
One of NYSUT's claims about the charter cap is that it supposedly increases charter school accountability. But this has not been in evidence. Rather, it is New York's statutory requirements implemented administratively by the Regents and SUNY that makes for effective accountability, regardless of how many charters are available to award. New York has always been rather stingy with approving new charters, which has contributed to higher student academic performance compared to school district averages. This also is in contrast to other charter states like Arizona and Ohio, which approved too many charters too quickly, leading to more mediocre results.
Charter Cap Lift is a Familiar Issue
Finally, Liz Benjamin further captures another important point made by Chancellor Tisch; that is, while the January 19th Race to the Top application deadline looms quickly, "lawmakers have more than sufficient time to come to a decision on the issue, and [Tisch] pointed out it's not like this whole discussion just got started yesterday." Right on. In fact, the legislature extensively discussed and debated charter schools throughout 2006 and 2007, when it last raised the cap. Charters have been ubiquitous in the news and editorials, especially since the summer when the Race to the Top discussion got into full gear.
So let's get charter and education reform accomplished, and get that award of federal money.
for The Chalkboard
Sen. Sampson cites several examples where the both parties came together to agree on major legislation this year, including renewing mayoral control of New York City schools, the recent deficit reduction package, and creating a Tier 5 retirement system to lower employee actuarial costs for the state and local governments.
The New York State Legislature has long been dominated by majority-party control in both houses. The minority party has virtually no power in New York, unlike for example, the United States Senate where it takes 60 percent of membership to enact measures; or in California, where a super-majority of legislators must agree to enact an annual budget.
As The Chalkboard wrote last summer (here), things have changed, at least in the state Senate. The Democrats last year won their first majority in that house since the mid-sixties - barely. To rule as a strict majority therefore requires every majority member--all 32 Democrats of the 62 members--to be present and vote in unanimity on every agreement or bill. Now, most bills that pass either house do so overwhelmingly in bipartisan fashion, but often the deals to make them are made by the majority; and more controversial bills are much tougher to come to consensus among a narrow majority.
Sen. Sampson is admirably reaching across the aisle to the minority Republicans to work together, including offering them committee chairmanships, which is practically unheard of in the Albany statehouse. The devil, of course, is in the details since in a still centrally-controlled Senate or Assembly, legislative committee actions often amount to mere window-dressing in contrast to committees in the U.S. Congress which have greater influence on the shape and outcome of legislation.
Bipartisanship Needed for Race to the Top
One area where bipartisan action will be critical is for the state legislature to enact the education reform agenda set forth by the Board of Regents last week. This Regents recommended agenda includes several provisions affecting charter schools such as raising the statutory cap, authorizing pre-kindergarten, and providing facilities funding.
Charter schools are supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature, so hopefully a consensus can be reached between them, and between both houses and Gov. Paterson, to enact the Regents agenda and win up to $700 million in urgently needed education funds from the Obama Administration's Race to the Top program. Doing so would benefit all children in public education -- district and charter schools.
Sen. Sampson's call for bipartisan action shows leadership to accomplish important objectives for New York. Education reform is now the immediate challenge.
for The Chalkboard
Interestingly, a picture tells a thousand words. The smiling, flattering photo of the Chancellor says it all. She's doing the correct things and the Post acknowledged it after initial skepticism (and a less flattering photo).
On Friday, the New York Daily News editorial (here) also urged the legislature to move quickly to make the changes endorsed by the Regents, and praised Tisch and Education Commissioner David Steiner for including new accountability measures for low-performing schools and districts.
The state legislature is abuzz with the Regents agenda and the need for extra cash for New York's serious financial problems. It needs to be in order to enact reforms in time, and time is a precious commodity since the application to the Feds is due January 19th.
More urgently, other competitor states are moving expeditiously to make changes even now. This is all the more reason New York State cannot stand on the sidelines arguing with itself and nickel-and-diming the Regents reform package.
for The Chalkboard
Leo doesn't like charter schools. We already knew that. But his contempt for them is so rabid he makes up his own realities, beginning with the activities of the Charter Association, which advocates on behalf of charter schools. He's now outdone himself with this latest tirade.
Supporting Race to the Top $$ for NYS
First, the charter school community in New York has for months been urging New York State to strengthen its charter laws to make the state more competitive to be awarded a competitive Race to the Top grant from the Obama Administration. The President and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan secured $4.35 billion in discretionary funding as an incentive for states to reform their public education systems. Charter school policy is a big part of their agenda. At stake is up to $700 million in new education funding for New York.
NYCSA's focus to improve our charter law, which is central to our mission, and secure more money for New York - a win-win for charters and districts alike. Leo cannot abide this. Rather, he writes that officials of NYCSA have been lobbying officials in Washington to deny New York this money. This is false. Who are these "officials" supposedly telling him this? Leo doesn't say.
Supporting the CFE Case
Leo continues with his bogus claim that NYCSA opposed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. I responded previously to this falsehood (here).
The New York Charter Schools Association supported the CFE case, and it filed an amicus brief to that effect. We make no apology for making the case for the court to use charter schools to raise standards and accountability in public education by removing the cap on charter schools and providing funding equity with facilities money for charters. Yet Leo continues to assert the opposite, and mendaciously distorts a statement by NYCSA president, Bill Phillips, at a Manhattan Institute forum on the CFE case. (Incidentally, Leo refers to the Institute as "right wing," which is a cheap shot and beside the point since it's the same Institute where Leo's state union leader, Richard Iannuzzi, presented at a similar kind of forum it held to discuss the 40th anniversary of the state's Taylor Law.)
Phillips made clear that "more money helps" but was not enough to guarantee improvement in public education, and that more charter schools also were necessary. He was critical of charter school opponents who wanted a go-slow approach on charters and opposed raising the charter cap in 2005 when the state was approaching the first 100 schools. His full comments at that forum are here, and the complete, undistorted paragraph from which Leo cherry-picked is here (page 24):
"I was asked what the role for charter schools was in the CFE recommendations. I'm going to answer that as a rebuttal to the criticism I always hear about charter schools. That said, it's quite funny to watch the same people who say that we ought to go slowly--when we have a hundred schools--be willing to take what is a multi-billion dollar gamble, saying 'Give us more money, and things will get better.' Do that over, and what's that, a thousand schools? I agree that more money helps, but there ought to be risk protection. A fundamental risk protection is to give the parents a place to go or to create another school that drains kids from bad schools, so that they are forced to close."
It's not exactly profound or "right-wing" to take the position that more money for education ought to be accompanied by reforms and accountability to ensure the money is well spent and produces desired results. It is risky to do otherwise. That's all Phillips was saying here. Today, that happens to be the approach espoused by the President of the United States, who is putting more money into education and demanding reforms at the same time to guard against the gamble, if you will, of throwing good money after bad. He developed this vision into a program called "Race to the Top."
Understanding the Taylor Law
Then there is Leo's hatred for the Jackson, Lewis law firm that wrote a useful book, Leveling the Playing Field (here) on the state's Taylor Law. I enjoyed Leo reprinting my endorsement of this book where I state that it "does a superb job of explaining how charter officials can maintain a healthy working environment without the intervention of a union." Charter school employees have the right to join a union, of course, and I have always respected that as long as it remains the choice for informed adults to make, rather than a mandate. At times unions have formed in charters based on the failure of schools to maintain a healthy working environment. Understanding the Taylor Law and maintaining a healthy working environment for teachers and other employees makes sense, except to Leo, who loathes this book because it provides balanced legal information on labor issues written in understandable, layman's prose.
Then there is Leo's injection of barbs about "ideology" and "right-wing" blah blah blah; ties to other organizations, blah blah blah; Wal-Mart, blah, blah blah; Richard Gilder, blah blah blah (who also supports the American Museum of Natural History, Sy Fliegel, Central Park, and bunch of other causes too numerous to list); Tom Carroll, blah, blah, blah (who also responds to Leo here); the Charter School Resource Center, blah blah blah (which helped to create, free of charge, most of the first 100 charters in New York); and so on. On these unhinged preoccupations, more bed rest might be warranted for Leo.
NYCSA is Non-partisan
The New York Charter Schools Association is non-partisan. There is not a single policy statement, press account or action by this organization (where I've worked since 2005) that displays any partisan, ideological right-wing or left-wing approach to charter schools. We work with all sides; we don't check for party labels and don't care. In fact, one of the refreshing aspects of charter schools is that it transcends ideology and is embraced and supported by both Democrats and Republicans; and liberals and conservatives alike, both in New York, in Washington, D.C., and in dozens of states throughout the country. Perhaps this upsets poor Leo, who may wish it otherwise; hence, his reckless labeling.
Why the Obsession Against Charters?
Why is Leo so obsessed with NYCSA to the point of spreading his series of canards? One can only speculate. Charters are advancing in New York and nationally. They are improving results for children in many school districts that for years failed to do so. More and more elected officials support them and are poised here and in many states to expand them. And, in a time when public funding has tightened, competition from charter schools intensifies, which may be troubling to Leo whose union represents teachers in district and charter schools that, in effect, are competing for dwindling dollars.
This union tension came alive early this year. In an unprecedented move, NYSUT and UFT came out against more charter funding and succeeded in getting the state legislature to cut the funding formula -- revealing a blatant conflict of interest. We've never let them forget this sell-out of their own charter members who pay them dues and who have since been pressuring the union not to repeat it.
Now we have Leo using his playbook to try and discredit NYCSA for doing its of job advocating for charter schools. But this union behavior makes it especially ironic and hypocritical for Leo to accuse the Charter Association--with zero real evidence--of putting "ideology" above its own school membership.
Better to Focus on Productive Things
Leo and many of his central union brethren have been kicking against the goads when it comes to charter schools by dusting off tired, irrelevant diatribe from old that rings hollow and looks more and more silly. They should instead take a lesson or two from their national leader, Randi Weingarten, who found productive ways to work with charters, even while having disagreements with them.
Those of us working in, and advocating for, public education have more productive things to do than attack each other. For starters, we should be doing what it takes to get Race to the Top money for our state. We can disagree at times, and we will; but truth should matter. With Leo Casey's latest jejune special, the truth is absent, while distortion and bile reign.
Leo can choose keep it up, spewing his shopworn acrimony. We're movin' on.
for The Chalkboard
Now in its eleventh year, the charter school is up for renewal since its one-year extension from the SUNY Board, granted last year, expires in June.
It's not looking good for New Covenant Charter School.
To be clear, I have not seen the preliminary renewal findings from SUNY's Charter Schools Institute (CSI) containing its recommendation for renewal (or non-renewal). The SUNY Board will have to make a final determination at its meeting in January. The New York Charter Schools Association has taken no position on the school's renewal question.
What I have read is the not-so-subtle statement from the SUNY Charter Institutes's Director, Jonas Chartock, quoted in today's Albany Times Union: "While the school has made some progress, it has not met the goals of its accountability plan or the academic conditions of its renewal." He went on to say: "Specific areas of concern include student performance in math, English and science. In addition, the school's financial condition continues to deteriorate."
Like I said, it doesn't look good for New Covenant.
This is not the statement of someone who intends to recommend renewal of this charter school. That this unusual statement was issued at this juncture is significant--and unprecedented--since the process, as I understood it, was for CSI to issue privately its preliminary report to the school, allow an opportunity for it to respond, conduct a public meeting with the parents (which will occur this Tuesday); then consider such responses and prepare a final report for the SUNY Board to act upon. Mr. Chartock has made up his mind where he's going, and wants the public to know it - now.
New Covenant On the Brink
Whether New Covenant should remain open or be closed is hard to discern at this point. The school has indeed made progress since the takeover in 2006 by its management company, Victory Schools, Inc., which operates several other charter schools in the state. Viewed against Albany district schools, New Covenant's comparative position has improved as its state test scores have improved. It appears to be a "turnaround" story -- but is it enough of a turnaround?
More than any other school, New Covenant Charter has been the topic of more charter authorizer meeting agendas than any other school, by far; and not just because it's one of the state's two oldest charters. It is because it has changed management companies twice, been put on probation approximately three times, and faced renewal twice. Moreover, the Regents have refused to approve the school, so it's been sent back to SUNY for constant re-votes.
The last time SUNY acted on New Covenant, the school barely survived one year ago when the Institute sought to close it and the SUNY Board gave it a one-year reprieve, laden with conditions. Any slippage from these conditions, which Chartock now claims, may not garner flexibility or sympathy from the SUNY Board this time around.
New Covenant may have exhausted its quota, as any turnaround may have arrived too late in its history to be determinative in its favor. The final decision on continuing this school resides with the SUNY Board, not the Institute, and the school has a due process right to make its case. It's already begun, so it's not a done deal. This story will get more interesting real soon.
for The Chalkboard
-- Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School (Queens)
-- Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School (Bronx)
-- Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation (Manhattan)
-- Lefferts Gardens Charter School (Brooklyn)
-- Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School (Manhattan)
-- Staten Island Community Charter School (Staten Island)
Each of the schools plan to open by September 2010, bringing that total to 25 new charters next year on top of the 140 currently operating. The Staten Island charter is only the second one in that borough, and the Renaissance high school is modeled after the highly successful Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens, which serves K-12.
Charter Renewals Also Approved
The Regents also approved several charter school renewals, including Niagara Charter School, just outside Niagara Falls; Genesee Community and Urban Choice charter schools in Rochester; and the Bronx Charter School for the Arts.
The Bronx Charter School for the Arts had previously been given a short-term renewal due to mediocre performance but has since significantly improved its student achievement and earned a full renewal as was pointed our during the meeting by Education Department staff. This is a great story of school success having been given the additional opportunity and admonition by its short-term renewal. Genesee Community got its second five-year renewal, having first opened in 2001. It is a superb school.
Urban Choice, a K-8 school, sought to expand to high school grades but was denied for reasons that were not stated; only that the Department indicates it directed the school to "modify its application accordingly." Otherwise, the school received a full K-8 renewal, had steady academic improvement, met its goals, and had clean fiscal audits. The school fears losing students it has worked with successfully and whose families are loathe to send them to Rochester district high schools. Hopefully, this need for a charter high school will be reconsidered by State Ed, as the grounds for denying the high school were specious, frankly.
30 Charters Remain, But More in the Pipeline
The Regents approvals leave them only 12 remaining under their cap of 100, and about that many remain under review by the state Education Department for Regents action in the next two months. In fact, the City Department of Education has stopped reviewing charter applications until the cap is raised.
The other 18 belong to the State University of New York, which begins a new review cycle next month and has received approximately two dozen letters of intent from applicants planning to submit charter school proposals.
Congratulations to all the charter school founders and operators receiving approvals this week. They went through a hellish process. The accountability and scrutiny are essential and welcomed, but much of the process has gotten to levels of bureaucratic absurdity that cannot be reformed soon enough by the new leadership at the Education Department. Common sense changes to the review process need not comprise quality and rigorous standards, but would benefit the school operators and Department staff alike.
for The Chalkboard
NYSUT: 400 charters "Ridiculous!"
No so, according to the Feds.
"She threw it all away just to make me look ridiculous, and a man in my position cannot afford to be made to look ridiculous!"
-Jack Woltz (John Marley) to Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)
in Godfather (Part I)
New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Executive Vice President, Alan Lubin, thinks raising the charter cap to 400 schools "would be ridiculous," reports New York Observer Capitol reporter, Jimmy Vielkind (here).
Indeed, like Mr. Woltz, the elite movie director in "The Godfather," a man in Mr. Lubin's position as 2nd in command at the most powerful interest group in the state, cannot afford to be made to look -- ridiculous!
What's next? Maybe Mr. Lubin or one of his colleagues dressing down state legislators in Tom Hagen's position: "Tell that [Governor/Chancellor]... that I ain't no band leader!"
400 Charter Cap Consistent with Federal Guidelines
Of course, a higher charter school cap is not about anyone looking bad. It's about accomplishing one of many reform-minded policies to meet federal standards. The Regents charter proposal did not specify doubling the cap to 400 from its current level of 200. But, Commissioner Steiner indicated that such an increase would be consistent with the Obama Administration's Race to the Top guidelines. Specifically, states with a "high" charter cap would score more points on the U.S. Department of Education's scoring rubric.
A "high cap" is defined in the federal regulations such that "if it were filled, > [or equal to] 10% of the total schools in the State would be charter schools." The equivalent of allowing enough charter schools to equal 10 percent of the number of schools in New York amounts to about 400 charters.
No, Mr. Lubin; neither the Regents nor Senate President Malcolm Smith, who proposed a bill to lift the charter cap to 400, are "throwing buck shot out there."
Lubin's metaphor doesn't work; but
we now know where he may hang out.
Then there is School Boards Association President, Tim Kremer, who, when it comes to charter schools, too often sounds like NYSUT's echo chamber, even as he has plenty of his own differences with the union. Mr. Kremer is "very concerned" about this number of charters. He should note that the Regents recommendation of charters operating multiple sites is not getting around the cap. Sen. Smith's bill (S.6339), for example, specifically provides that each additional site under a single charter would count as a "charter issued" to allay this very concern.
It's also surprising that Mr. Kremer would be concerned about "tremendous bureaucracy" since he represents so many in his own organization, the school boards, which govern those bureaucracies at "tremendous cost." The fact is that charter schools are part of the public school system, not something else. To be fair, charters also indeed are a competitive challenge to district schools, most of which Tim Kremer and the School Boards Association represent.
RttT Money Helps NYSUT and NYSSBA the Most
So let us reason together, and do whatever is necessary, beginning with this nugget: the two organizations that would benefit the most from a federal Race to the Top award are NYSUT and School Boards Association, as up to $700 million would accrue to their teacher and district membership. They shouldn't allow their distaste for charters to stand in the way.
Instead, they should be asking if 400 charters is enough?
President Obama is pro-charter and made state charter policy an important part of federal discretionary assistance to states. It would be senseless and self-defeating to try and dumb down New York's Race to the Top application on raising the charter cap or facilities funding for charters. Dumbing-down on reform would risk getting a smaller federal grant or none at all. Then everyone loses.
for The Chalkboard
The Governor rightly emphasized the importance of New York State competing for up to $700 million in new federal money from the Race to the Top program, and the importance of increasing the cap to have a stronger state application to be awarded this funding.
Leadership Needed - Quickly
Now that the Governor has stepped up verbally to embrace education reform by the Regents, his leadership is vital to get the legislature to enact the charter cap lift and many other reforms advocated by the Regents. Reform always begins with executive leadership, without which it is bound to fail. Not only must there be legislative action, but it must happen soon -- like, in the next 30 days with Christmas and New Year's intervening.
That way, the state's application for Race to the Top, due to Washington on January 19, can contain actual reform accomplishments which count, rather than promises of reform which do not count in the federal points rubric.
Legislation should be advanced by the Governor with all the Regents recommendations, and he should make education reform for Race to the Top the centerpiece of his state of the state speech on January 6. To drive home the point of urgency, he should ask the legislature, which meets in joint session for this annual speech, to stick around and pass legislation for the state's application. Time is running out.
$700 Million Still Real Money
Seven hundred million doesn't buy what it once did, but it still makes a critical difference in the finances of the state and school districts to educate students. Those funds will accrue not to charter schools but mostly to school districts, which is reason enough to get on board with the Regents education reform.
for The Chalkboard
Does Mulgrew Live Here?
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, came out in opposition to the state Board of Regents position to raise the state charter school cap. What's a few hundred million dollars to New York anyway?
Not every Regent is an ardent charter supporter, but they understand that a charter cap lift is an important criteria for the state's Race to the Top application and the critical funds it would generate for the state.
Would Mr. Mulgrew rather see New York State risk losing this money for failure to raise the cap and enact other education reforms? Both the Daily News and Gotham Schools report that Mulgrew opined that the charter cap shouldn't be raised until charter schools serve more special education students and students who are limited English proficient.
Mr. Mulgrew, call your office. Your own charter, the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn, has little more than a whopping 1 percent of its students as limited English proficient. This is a good school and I don't believe for a moment there is anything awry. The issues of LEP and special education students in charters are more complicated than a soundbite, including a hypocritical soundbite.
Existing Law Sufficient - Enforce It
Charter schools have varying percentages of special education students and LEP students -- the same as individual schools within a school district or community school district. The Charter Schools Act requires that charters make "good faith efforts to attract and retain" students with disabilities or who are limited English proficient.
The state Education Department and SUNY Charter Schools Institute are charged with oversight of charter schools which includes enforcing this statue. If any charter schools aren't following this provision, the charter authorizers should do what they do with a charter school that has non-certified teachers beyond the legal limits: admonish, place on corrective action, probation, or whatever appropriate enforcement that is warranted.
The reality is that this issue is more complicated, including districts oversubscribing special ed students (see sped). Many charter schools are not located in areas with English language learners. Charters are schools of choice; parents are not forced to send their children to them. Charter schools do not have their own committees on special education; rather, they are controlled by the district which makes special education determinations. Charter schools also must use operating funds to pay for building space - money that could be used to offer more student services.
Allow "At-Risk" Admission Preference for LEP and Special Ed Students
Despite these strictures on charter schools, many charters in fact serve high percentages of students with disabilities, and educate a growing number of Latino children, including English Language learners. The charter community, authorizers and policymakers should be creative to find ways equip themselves to better serve students of need.
One place to start is for the state Education Department to rethink its opposition to charter schools using the statutory "at-risk" admission preference to favor enrollment of LEP students and special education students. At least several charters have proposed to do this and were barred. Another means to serve more students with need is to allow charter schools to locate at more than one site, in effect, combining multiple sites to a single school that would blend small school settings with economies of scale to offer more special education services and employ more specialists to include dual language instructors.
for The Chalkboard
The Regents showed they were serious about reforming education by adopting the recommendations from their new education commissioner, David Steiner, this afternoon at their monthly meeting.
This comprehensive package of reforms includes raising the charter cap, providing charter facilities funding, streamlining teacher removal, encouraging teacher merit pay and incentives for specialty teachers, enabling school districts to contract with management companies, among other changes. Commissioner Steiner and his senior deputy, John King, methodically presented the package of reforms in a marathon four-hour meeting today in Albany.
Charter schools are a sensitive subject with the Regents, and several board members raised concerns, including James Tallon, a former majority leader of the state Assembly. Regent Tallon questioned the policy objective of charter schools and whether they were suppose to "leverage" change in school districts, or "replace schools." I submit charter school objectives are presented in the Charter Schools Act (section 2850 of the Education law, here), which include improving student learning and achievement, providing choice in the public school system, and other objectives. Still, Tallon's concerns are important, including how charters fit within a local school system as a competitive challenge.
Regent Betty Rosa from the Bronx had concerns about charter schools serving students who are English language learners. Actually, Regent Rosa's concerns are best handled administratively by the state Education Department and the SUNY Charter Schools Institute which should be examining charter schools in areas with English language learners, and whether such schools are making good faith efforts to attract and retain such students, as the current law requires.
Regents Unanimously Endorse Reform - Legislature Up Next
Former Regents Chancellor, Robert Bennett, from western New York, spoke in favor of the reform package and in support of charter schools. All in all, the reform discussion by the Regents was at a new level that views charter schools as a necessary part of the state's public school system particularly as an option for improving districts with low-performing schools, and should be expanded.
The Regents voted unanimously to endorse the Education Department's recommendations. Ultimately, there was no dissent. This unanimity is an important statement to the state legislature, which appoints this entire board. The legislature would have to adopt many of the Regents proposals, including those for charter schools, for them to become a reality. That is far from certain.
Still, despite this legislative uncertainty, education reform took a huge step forward today from the state's top education policymaking board. Federal Race to the Top funding is closer to reality, provided the legislature follows suit.
Impressive Leadership by Chancellor Tisch
Finally, enormous credit belongs to the Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch. She led the effort to appoint a well-known reformer as commissioner, oversaw the details of the reform package prepared and presented by the Department, and convinced her fellow Regents--including the reform skeptics--to approve it in full. This is impressive leadership all around.
for The Chalkboard
Reformers or pretenders?
We will know very soon.
The New York State Education Department late last week unveiled its recommended education reform package for the Regents to adopt this week at its monthly meeting (see also Chalkboard discussion).
By New York standards, this is boldness, particularly on the teacher preparation, school turnaround, and charter school agenda. The Regents must follow through on these proposals and approve this agenda without hesitation for two primary reasons:
1) New York will substantially improve its competitive chances for up to one-half billion or more federal Race-to-the-Top dollars awarded by the Obama Administration to states that have reformed their education systems. Numerous other states have enacted reforms, or are poised to do so in order to compete for this funding. Across the country, states are raising their charter caps and enhancing their funding, removing the data "firewall" for teacher tenure, and imposing greater teacher accountability. States like Colorado and Florida already are well-positioned; other states like California, Wisconsin and Michigan are on the move to enact reforms by January.
2) The Regents to their credit asked for these kinds of measures by their unanimous appointment last July of David Steiner as the state Education Commissioner. With the package of reform proposals unveiled for tomorrow's meeting, he has followed through on his reputation as a bold reformer. Were the Regents expecting less?
Not according to Regents Vice Chancellor, Milton Cofield, who was co-chair of the commissioner search committee, when he described the appointment this way: "In David Steiner the Regents have selected a bold and provocative education reformer."
Indeed, the Regents eschewed any thought of conventional shyness when they appointed Steiner (here) knowing, for example, that he was the author of more than 100 journal articles, papers, reports and chapters on education reform.
Subsequently, at numerous public forums this fall, Chancellor Merryl Tisch assured audiences that the state would have an "aggressive" Race to the Top application and cited the appointment of Commissioner Steiner and his team that she was serious. That is what is now before the Regents to approve.
Regents At a Fork in the Road - Do the Right Thing
It's now on Chancellor Tisch, Vice Chancellor Cofield, and Regent Anthony Bottar, the other co-chair of the commissioner search committee and chairman of the Regents committee on Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education, to follow through and deliver their colleagues on the Board of Regents to approve this reform package - all of it.
That would be a major step forward, and spur the state legislature--which needs plenty of spurs--to follow suit by enacting reform measures in time for the state's submission of its Race to the Top application next month.
Failure by the Regents to rise to the occasion this week and approve Commissioner Steiner's education reform package would show they were unserious, and merely posturing with their changing of the guard at State Ed.
Regents approval of these reforms for Race to the Top would show they can rise above anti-reform political pressure coming from the usual suspects, and that they mean business about improving education for New York's children.
for The Chalkboard
The education reform train is leaving the station;
Regents must be on board, or leave NYS students behind.
The Regents just posted the agenda for their monthly two-day meeting this Monday and Tuesday, including several ambitious reform ideas to strengthen New York State's application for federal Race to the Top funding. Raising the cap on charter schools and providing equitable funding for charters are on the list.
Among the list of recommendations is to "transform [State Ed.] from a compliance-oriented agency to a service-oriented agency" to assist school districts with preparing students to compete in a global economy. It also calls for the Department to be equipped to pursue "dramatic turnaround" for low-performing schools, including "direct management of schools by external lead partners." Managing turnarounds in persistently low-performing areas will require more than a few broken eggs. Though it's not explicit, these reforms to be successful will inevitably require a new district accountability starting with transforming union work rules embedded in contracts years in making.
Proposed reforms affecting teachers include merit incentive pay for recruiting science, math and technology teachers in high-need schools; encouraging differential pay for more successful faculty; using multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including student achievement data; and streamlining the process for disciplining (or firing) incompetent teachers.
This is heady stuff and welcome. The challenge is the state Education Department's culture is deep into legalistic compliance issues that burden school districts and charter schools alike to levels of absurdity. And, the Department does not have a strong track record on its management of the Roosevelt School District on Long Island, even with millions of extra state aid for the purpose.
That was then. Today, the Department has new leadership at the Regents and commissioner levels. Commissioner David Steiner and his Senior Deputy, John King, are not lifelong bureaucrats having risen up through the ranks. Their lengthy list of reform recommendations reflects their backgrounds and displays a compelling vision that the Regents should adopt this week.
Will the Regents go along?
State Ed Recommending Charter Cap Lift & Equitable Funding
State Ed also calls for lifting the charter school cap, and for "equitable funding for charter schools, and access to facilities financing." Today's New York Post reports on the charter provisions here. This is not only a major step forward, but a necessary one for New York to garner up to 8 percent of the points on the federal scoring rubric for Race to the Top funds.
The Regents have long been ambiguous about charter schools, with the backdrop of teacher union and school district opposition. Nevertheless, the Regents have usually overcome this pressure by putting student needs first and approving most of the 170 charter schools since 1999 (counting conversions from district schools) - including many charters in smaller school districts outside of New York City.
Backwards or Forward?
As the current charter cap is soon to be reached, it is only natural that the Department is going in this direction, especially with President Obama calling for states to "lift caps and reform charter rules." The President is backing up his words with his plan to award states with Race to the Top funds for adopting charter and other education reform policies.
Monday afternoon's Regents meeting in particular will tell us much about the educational future of this state and which direction its headed. Standing still by doing nothing means going backwards. The education reform train is heading forward, out of the station. The Regents need to be on it.
for The Chalkboard
"Scheduled Payments May Soon Exceed Available Dollars"
-Statement by the Office of the State Comptroller (12-10-09)
The Chalkboard wrote previously that Governor David Paterson has ordered the state Budget Division to delay state aid payments to school districts and localities, based on a state cash crunch that is coming to a head this month. I believe the state should not shortchange localities what it promised this year, and the state, rather than localities, should be borrowing short-term to meet its obligations budgeted this year.
That said, is New York State really short on cash to pay its bills?
Who better to ask than the Office of the State Comptroller, the state's independent fiscal watchdog? Well, Thomas DiNapoli, who holds this office, has spoken: "While the checkbook has enough it [sic] to cover the bills we have to pay today, the state's cash flow is so tight that might not be the case tomorrow" (emphasis mine). Comptroller DiNapoli's full statement on Thursday is here.
Thanks for that authoritative precision, Mr. DiNapoli. Like, we "might not" pay the bills tomorrow; we "may" soon run out of money to pay bills. Then, again, that also could mean we "might" have enough for tomorrow and "may" be able to pay all the bills!
Anyone home in the Comptroller's Office? I could have said the same things by picking a daisy -- maybe, maybe not. Mr. DiNapoli's statement also said these cash "updates" are part of his "on-going effort to increase fiscal transparency." Swell.
With this guidance, one can understand the Governor taking no chances and slowing down on state spending, at least until there is a more informed certainty on the cash situation from the experts. It doesn't appear he's getting much to work with from the Comptroller's office.
for The Chalkboard
P.S.: Maybe it's not such a surprise that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with Gov. Paterson's backing, is eyeing the Comptroller job in next year's election, as reported in Thursday's New York Post (here).
Last month Gov. Paterson sought to address the resulting current-year budget shortfall by proposing $3.2 billion in budget cuts. The state Senate balked, resulting in a smaller package of budget savings that left education and other programs untouched. The Senate, with the narrowest majority of Democrats, could not muster the votes for such mid-year reductions.
I viewed it wrong and unfair for the state to cut school aid to districts when all but the largest five districts levied their property taxes and, by a vote of its residents, adopted their school budgets based on the promised aid level from the state.
The governor took what savings he could get this month from the legislature. Now he has decided to delay school aid payments and other local assistance due to the cash crunch confronting the state (here). (NOTE: if there was a formal policy statement or press release from the Paterson Administration on this significant action, I could not locate it.) The governor's action is legally dubious and organizations like the state School Boards Association may seek a court order to stop him from refusing to spend appropriated money on a timely basis.
Delaying aid payments may be possible by the governor, whose executive powers oversee implementation of the state's financial plan. This is different from impounding funds altogether; that is, not spending legislatively appropriated funds for an indefinite period. The governor's intentions at this point are unclear: "I will continue to withhold payments until this economy is leveled off," he said yesterday. What if the economy in New York doesn't "level off" for another year, or longer?
Short-term Borrowing Anyone?
Delaying state aid to school districts may force many of them to borrow funds on a short-term basis to pay their own bills and meet cash flow needs. The state used to do this very thing--short-term borrowing--for decades so much so that it ballooned to a $5 billion budget gap. The state turned this gap into long-term borrowing by creating the Local Government Assistance Corporation (LGAC) in the early 1990s to issue bonds backed by the state sales tax.
It is unfair for the state to force school districts and local governments to borrow because of its reneging on promised aid. I don't envy Gov. Paterson's enormous fiscal challenges, but he and the legislature should look to borrow on a one-time, short-term basis (without it becoming a recurring, reckless habit as before) to make good on the state's promises to localities and school districts this year, rather than force them to resort to this stop-gap measure.
Gov. Paterson also is entitled to have a better read on the cash situation, but doesn't appear to be getting much help from the State Comptroller (here).
for The Chalkboard
The former senator's conviction is statewide news, of course. Two capital region newspapers had very different, banner headlines on the front page:
"BRUNO GUILTY" - Albany Times Union
"Bruno vows to fight on" - Schenectady Daily Gazette
The Times Union has never been a fan of Joe Bruno's; not its news coverage, nor its columnists and certainly not its editorial board. The feeling was mutual. Their headline today is the largest font I've ever seen in this newspaper, and probably larger than the size it used for the Man on the Moon or the 9-11 Terrorists Attacks. That speaks volumes.
By contrast, the Daily Gazette's headline indicates coverage that reflects the significance of the news story, and no more.
Sen. Bruno represented Rensselaer and Saratoga counties in the state Senate for 32 years, 14 of which he served as Majority Leader. I did not follow this trial closely and am in no position to second-guess the jury's verdict. There is no joy in seeing this accomplished, likable and elderly man stand as a convicted felon, especially given the fact that he was cognizant of the state laws governing his behavior and appeared to adhere to them.
That a vaguely written federal statute depriving honest services can supersede state ethics laws governing state legislators is a concern, especially with the wide discretion it gives federal prosecutors. This federal law used to indict and convict the senator is simultaneously under judicial review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices appear skeptical of its constitutionality (here).
This case on Sen. Bruno is far from completed. He is appealing the verdict, and the Supreme Court's review of the federal law convicting him may end up overturning the outcome.
State Legislature Should Remain Part-time
The New York state legislature is technically a part-time job with outside employment and income permissible. It should remain that way. New York would not be better off with a full-time legislature and it spends too much time in Albany as it is. Anyone who believes differently should look at the worse, ongoing mess made by the full-time legislature in California. It's not the workload that keeps state legislators in lengthy sessions in Albany; rather, it's the inability to agree on big issues, especially in times like these of economic distress.
If state legislators work on the outside, and they legitimately should, they will need to study this case carefully and remain within the federal law as long as it remains on the books. The legislature also should tighten its own ethics laws by requiring greater disclosure and scrutiny of outside income. That already has begun with a law just introduced to tighten the ban on using legislative employees for non-legislative business (here). Seems obvious, but existing law is not. Lawyers in the legislature (which are most members) also should have to reveal their clients; of course, the nature of the work must remain privileged.
I believe it is good for the legislators to work and spend time in non-legislative employment and activities--fully disclosed--to have a better appreciation of how their actions in the Capitol affect real people.
for The Chalkboard
Today's Buffalo News publishes a response from me, critical of the board and superintendent. I also posted a lengthier critique on The Chalkboard (here).
Buffalo has this bad habit of scapegoating charter schools for its financial problems, even though the state and federal governments pay for nearly everything -- well more than 80 percent of its budget comes from every other taxpayer rather than locally financed. Meanwhile, the school boards over the years have doled out generous contracts to its cantankerous unions to the point of paying all their retiree medical benefits and other "legacy" costs.
Charter schools are one of the few educational positives in Buffalo, but district leadership void of creativity and boldness inevitably falls back on attacking them as easy savings if they would only wither away. I can understand the teacher unions not liking charters, as it is competition to them for public money. But boards and superintendents should have a wider lens and focus on children -- all children, and what is best for them. Charters should continue to play a role for what is best for district children.
Buffalo Leaders Out of Step with Reformers
Charter schools are supported by President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and are viewed as necessary to reform education and are a key component of their "Race to the Top" competition for states to earn discretionary funding. The last three governors of New York have been pro-charter. The last two chancellors of the Regents, including Tonowanda's own Robert Bennett, are pro-charter; and a third Chancellor, Carl Hayden, has taken a pro-charter stance in his current capacity as Chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees. The Mayor of the nation's largest city, Michael Bloomberg of New York, is pro-charter. He also is faced with fiscal challenges but he's not seeking to stop charters; rather, Mayor Bloomberg is urging state to raise the charter cap so he can have one hundred more in the next four years.
In contrast to all of this, a majority of Buffalo's school board and Superintendent Williams are moving backward, seeking the same old excuses to deal with their education and financial problems. Their moratorium request accomplishes nothing for the district: it helps no child and it saves no money. It's merely symbolic -- and pathetic.
for The Chalkboard
Would you invest in this guy?
It is always a great story to read of successfully wealthy individuals giving back to their communities. That is what the New York Times profiled on Friday about several New York City hedge fund investors supporting a variety of charter schools throughout the City (here).
One of the reasons cited by Times reporter, Nancy Haas, was the accountability factor: "Charter schools' reliance on metrics and tests to measure progress is another attraction to hedge funders," she wrote. It also matters that charter schools get less on a per pupil basis than what the City spends on district schools and therefore need private philanthropy to survive.
This is all too much for the Union Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who can't resist a cheap shot when he told the Times: "I thinks it's all good and well that these people are finally stepping up to support education" (emphasis mine).
Mr. Mulgrew wishes more of it went to him: "I wish they would do it in a more foundational way, a way that would help all the children instead of just a small group." Translation: you rich guys, just write those checks to top-off the gigantic pot at UFT headquarters so I can spread more around to everyone, regardless.
No mention is made that the UFT raises its own money through its foundation. But Mr. Mulgrew's covetousness is revealing. He would just assume have MORE--even though district schools already have MORE--with no thought to its effectiveness or return on investment, the way a hedge fund investor thinks. To be fair, union heads aren't expected to think that way, and it's his job to be voracious and distribute money equally across the board. He should rethink this 20th century mentality.
The objective of more targeted philanthropy by hedge fund investors in charter schools is to directly and realistically impact children's lives for the better. As these successful schools take this investment, improve results, and expand across the City and state, the positive impact spreads to more children, and hopefully to the public system itself. That will depend on elected officials and union chiefs like Mr. Mulgrew.
Covet or Adapt?
Mr. Mulgrew needs to decide whether he will covet and criticize, or adapt his own union contract and teacher culture to the best practices brought about by charter schools. Now would be a good time since the UFT master contract remains under negotiation with the Bloomberg Administration. Also, his UFT predecessor, Randi Weingarten, made a small but significant effort to do so by creating the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn and investing in the Green Dot Charter School in the Bronx.
Absent real change in school district practices by administrators and unions alike, investors should continue to target their philanthropy to accomplish the best results, rather than it being spread out to accomplish more of the same district mediocrity and failure that, in part, spurred charter schools in the first place.
for The Chalkboard
The Chancellor appears to be showing a greater urgency to see the charter cap raised since the Regents are likely to reach their half at the moment New York's Race to the Top application is due next month to the U.S. Department of Education. The state's application will be more competitive on the federal scoring rubric by having more room under its cap since 8 percent of the points comprise charter school policies. Other states understood as much and raised their charter caps accordingly.
New York a Magnet for Great Schools
The Post also reports today that several operators of high-quality charter schools, including MATCH, a charter high school in Boston, Citizens Academy in Cleveland, and the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., all are interested in expanding in New York, but not until the cap is lifted.
It takes a lot of time and effort to create a new charter school in another location. Founders must assemble to constitute a non-profit board, feasible building locations must be explored, funding has to be raised, and the application itself prepared. Last time the cap was reached, it took nearly a year and half to be raised by the state legislature. No out-of-state operator is going to come here until it knows for sure there is room for charter schools.
New York's students should be so lucky. For all the negativity in the state, with jobs vanishing and population relocating, New York continues to be a magnet for many of the best public school operators and support organizations in the country. Some groups are from within the state, including Success Charter Network and Brighter Choice Foundation; others are from elsewhere, including Achievement First (Conn.) and National Heritage Academies (Mich.); and still other networks like Uncommon Schools are operated by several individuals who came home, that is, native New Yorkers that operated great schools elsewhere and returned to the state to set up under the state's charter law.
Little of this will matter to many politicians in New York who deal in power politics, not issues of merit. Better schools from "outsiders" will not be persuasive, and seem trite. Parents, by contrast, just want a great education for their children, and 40,000 of them are on charter school waiting lists, hoping for the chance, regardless of where the operator came from. That should be reason enough for politicians to raise the charter cap for more great schools.
for The Chalkboard
This week the state legislature created a Tier V retirement system for state and local employees hired after January 1st. The unions are delighted with the measure, which is the tell-tale sign that it fixes little if anything in terms of state and local fiscal problems. In fact, it's a missed opportunity and a step backwards for improving short and long-term state and local finances.
While the politicians were claiming victory for fiscal responsibility, the bill they adopted actually creates a new benefit for teachers by moving up the retirement age from 62 to 57 with full benefits, provided they have a minimum of 30 years in the system. Everyone else must wait to 62.
"We need the early retirement," Alan Lubin, NYSUT's #2, told the Associated Press. "Teachers just don't make it to 62. It's a tough job."
Huh? Do they die prematurely, Mr. Lubin? What is this man talking about? Everyone is living longer on average, and the Social Security retirement age is moving in the opposite direction, to 67.
Indeed, school teachers do have a tough job and deserve our respect and fair compensation. But claiming teachers "don't make it" passed age 57 is patronizing and demeaning toward them. In fact, superior teachers deserve more compensation than lesser ones, rather than the typical one-size fits-all union contracts that forbid acknowledging differences in student accomplishment and specialty subjects. But teachers also get considerable time off during the calendar year (summers, Christmas break, spring break, Lincoln's birthday, Columbus Day, etc.) to balance the grind of educating dozens of students on a daily basis.
New employees in Tier V now will pay 3.5 percent of their salary toward the pension throughout their employment, but the pension level remains guaranteed, which is what drives state and local fiscal crises, particularly during economic slowdowns. The current Tier IV employees pay 3.0 percent of salary for the first ten years, then pay nothing. It won't be too many years hence before NYSUT and other public unions get the legislature to sweeten Tier V just as they did for Tier IV. Bank on it.
A Richer, Affordable Way for Employees and Government
The missed opportunity here is that the legislature should have created a Tier V with a defined contribution plan, rather than continuing the defined benefit system. Defined contribution could require employer and employee to contribute a set, predictable amount for pensions. Savings would grow over time according to investment returns. Yes, in some years the pension savings could decline for some workers, depending on the risk level chosen. But, over a 30-year career a defined contribution system would save government and school districts billions of dollars for other needs, and provide for richer pensions for retirees.
In the current defined benefit system, continued by the new Tier V, the skyrocketing cost of guaranteeing the actuarial demands of retirement ironically means less funding for other educational needs, including teacher salaries.
Charter schools have the choice between the public defined benefit systems and a 401(k)-style defined contribution system. Many, if not most, charter schools opt for the latter as they must have predictable expenses since their revenue options are dependent on a formula and are limited, e.g., charters can't raise taxes to fund higher actuarial costs of the public pension systems.
In tough fiscal times as these, we have another reminder that the unions, especially the teachers, wield enormous influence in state government. It's democratic and perfectly legal. It's also anti-climatic and expensive.
for The Chalkboard
At Dr. Williams' request, the board voted 6-2 on a resolution to submit a letter to the state Board of Regents requesting that they stop approving more charter schools. That charters improve student academic outcomes and that Buffalo's families want them did not enter the board's thinking.
If only I could have been at this board meeting 290 miles from Albany. The two tanks of gasoline and $23.28 round-trip Thruway tolls (using the e-zpass discount, of course) would have been worth the sheer entertainment value, but for the serious, farcical nature of it all. The next best thing is the Buffalo News account by education reporter, Pete Simon (here).
Where to begin?
Reading the letter itself and the statements of ignorance and confusion from Supt. Williams, Board President Ralph Hernandez and other board members leaves one gasping that this bunch oversees the second largest school district in the state.
Dr. Williams, for example, claims the charter school funding formula is "woefully inept." Say, what? Does he even know that all charter students are in the state school aid formula for Buffalo? Considering the district's budget is 80 percent funded by the state, every Buffalo charter student generates funding over and above what the district spends on charter schools since they get one-third less than the cost of district students. Do the math, Dr. Williams, before making such inane assertions in public. Buffalo has been effectively arbitraging state aid for charter students for nearly a decade.
Then there is Lou Petrucci, who demonstrated the selfish logic of voting against more charters because they get "an unfair competitive edge because of increased flexibility," the News reported. The thought may never have occurred to Mr. Petrucci to instead argue for district schools getting the same flexibility as charters. The easier path for him is to prevent more such schools that are working. His vote also appears out of pure spite since the state rejected his efforts to expand Leonardo Da Vinci High School.
Mr. Hernandez voted for the moratorium because he believes it is his "moral and ethical obligation to the public school system" of Buffalo. This is the same system that is among the lowest academically performing districts in the state, no matter how much money is thrown its way. It's this system that has for years has shown itself incapable of educating most of its students on state standards, or graduating them on time (or at all). So much for that "moral obligation." Charter schools, by contrast, are a means to improve public education in Buffalo, and have done so for thousands of children on less funding.
Nothing about this board discussion reported in the paper included educational excellence or the needs of children, nor what demonstrable actions should be taken to improve education in the city. Instead, Dr. Williams and six of his board members come off as pathetic bean-counters.
Do Buffalo's Anti-charter Efforts Matter?
How will the Regents respond to this moratorium request?
I suspect the Regents will treat this amateurish letter the way they have every other instance when the Buffalo district opposed a new charter school: ignore it. When a quality charter school proposal for Buffalo comes before the Regents or SUNY, they will rigorously examine it and approve it if it meets the law's high bar, just as they've done for a decade. Why? Because both charter authorizers know all too well the abysmal condition of the Buffalo Public Schools and view charters as one means to improve it for students.
Furthermore, the Regents likely will dismiss this Buffalo effort based on the board's own letter, which was full of platitudes and bereft of facts to make even a remote case. It didn't stop there: the letter also insults the Regents by claiming that a recently approved charter school (Health Sciences in Tonawanda) to serve Buffalo students was not "fully vetted" by them. Brilliant.
The attack on charter schools by Buffalo's board and superintendent reveals their desperation to have an answer to the district's perpetual financial problems. This is delusional since stopping charters won't fix the real problem: that is, the district's refusal to reign in lavish operating and legacy costs. Instead, they vote to deny a reform that's worked for its own residents by providing the choice of better schools, especially for families unable to flee to the suburbs or afford private schooling.
Superintendent Williams has come full circle. He can no longer pretend he's a reformer, trying to improve public education for all children. Rather, he's a defender of turf; of a failed "system" against the most promising education reform outside that system. He and a majority of the board of education, together with the BTF, are now two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
It is Buffalo students that lose in this arrangement, which is a shame. But at least we have clarity.
for The Chalkboard
The reason for belt tightening? Under-enrolled classes. Mr. McCalla said that all classes with fewer than 15 students are being "scrutinized" for reductions in January, at mid-year. This activity is a prelude to the inevitable spending cuts in 2010-11 since the state gravy train of school aid has ended.
Years of state aid growth masked the necessity for inevitable downsizing as more than 2,000 students (and counting) exited to the city's nine charter schools. Charter schools aren't a recent phenomenon in Albany; they first appeared exactly ten years ago and are continuing to expand. Throughout this period, more money flowed annually from the state Capitol, allowing district officials to punt on downsizing. Finally, only last year did the district close Livingston Middle School, a chronically failing institution. Can anyone claim with a straight face that students were not better off in other schools while Livingston was an educational mess?
There is no delight in anyone losing their job, and the Albany district has mostly avoided actual layoffs in spite of the decade-long depopulation of students in district schools. Albany should have been more aggressive in downsizing in the years leading to this point, which would have been less painful when accomplished gradually. Instead, the easier thing for the district has been to blame charter schools; demand more state aid; and seek a "moratorium" on new charters in spite of their academic success and popularity from the city's pesky parents wanting to enroll their children in them.
District officials are still at it by blaming their financial problems on charter schools which "siphon" $26 million out of a massive $204 million budget, as reported in the Times Union. Can anyone in the district do the math? Its own numbers tell us it is spending more than $23,000 per district student compared to only $12,000 for each student at a charter school -- a comparative bargain by any measure. From a charter perspective, it's a gross inequity.
The inevitable has arrived -- no tears for Albany.
for The Chalkboard
Will the Feds RttT Evaluators Grade on Promises?
Other reform areas are not nearly as sanguine. The Chancellor continues to insist that New York will meet Race to the Top eligibility requirements even though it has a law on the books banning the use of student test data for making tenure determinations. This "data firewall" is set to expire in June and the state legislature has "no appetite," according to Tisch, to renew the statute. Fine. It is from private conversations with U.S. Department of Education officials that she, along with state teacher union president, Richard Iannuzzi, are so confident of the state's eligibility. I do not doubt either one's veracity on this question.
Still, any evaluator of the state's Race to the Top application this winter must weigh the promise that the legislature in New York will actually not renew an expiring law in months hence, and therefore make an award determination before this law expires. A federal evaluator knowing this law's history in New York may have further pause.
New York's statute banning the use of test scores, let us recall, was furtively and brazenly jammed through the legislature last year at the behest of the powerful teachers union at the last minute before state budget adoption. The brazen part came from the fact that this law undid a reform of Gov. Spitzer's enacted the year before, in 2007. The union wasted no time undoing this measure by imposing the ban not three weeks following Spitzer's resignation.
Another mention from Chancellor Tisch is that the cap on the number of charter schools in New York will be raised, as she assured her audience at TC and at other forums. It's encouraging that the Chancellor has this position, but how confident can one be on this hot-button issue? The state Assembly has never been enthusiastic about charter schools, even though tens of thousands of constituent families either benefit from them or have their children on waiting lists hoping for them. The risk of losing hundreds of millions of extra dollars from Washington perhaps will allow enough Assembly Members to shelve their antipathy. Perhaps not.
Real or Potemkin Charter Cap Lift?
The problem is that not all cap-lifts are the same. In 2007, for example, the Assembly proposed its version of a charter cap lift accompanied by more than a dozen poison pills that would have rendered New York's charter law an unworkable joke and a farce. In the end, most of these inimical proposals fell off the table, the cap was doubled, and the state's charter law remained intact for more successful public schools to be created.
New York's charter cap and data firewall should be dealt with now -- before the state submits its Race to the Top application on the 19th of January. The legislature can accomplish these necessary changes rapidly and cleanly. This is not complicated or unfamiliar territory. It need not take months--and more months--to accomplish.
Failure to act on these provisions would make some of New York's RttT application built on promises of future action, rather than reforms already achieved. This strategy is not putting our best foot forward, to say the least. Chancellor Tisch claims that New York will have a "very competitive" application; in fact, it will contain unnecessary vulnerabilities that will forego needed points on the USDOE's scoring rubric. There is no educational excuse for the Regents and legislature to not eliminate these barriers in the next six weeks.
There are only political reasons for failing to do so. That is no excuse, and is unlikely to garner empathy from the Obama Administration that seeks to transform public education.
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.