On March 23, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York brought the long saga of New Covenant Charter School in Albany to an end, voting to close at the end of this school year one of the first charter schools to be opened in New York. This decision was the final act in what SUNY called a “difficult history,” which included two consecutive non-renewal recommendations by SUNY’s Charter School Institute and a 2007 vote by New Covenant’s own trustees to close the school due to financial problems.
Families of students attending New Covenant met the decision with dismay, as the loss of the school will disrupt their lives and their children’s education.
New Covenant is the second of the first three schools chartered in New York to be closed. There are two important lessons to be learned from this experience.
First, over New Covenant’s eleven years of existence, it was managed by three different for profit educational management organizations [EMOs] – Advantage Schools, Edison Schools [now Edison Learning] and Victory Schools – each of which dismally failed, in turn, at having the school meet its performance benchmarks. The students who attended New Covenant and the educators who taught in the school were exploited by these EMOs, which profited as the school floundered academically. Now the students and educators are paying the price for the failures of the EMOs.
It was precisely because of the performance at New Covenant and other charter schools that the UFT included the prohibition of for profit EMOs in the package of reforms to charter school legislation we proposed in January.
Second, the final denouement of New Covenant’s troubled history was long and drawn out because of the posture of the office of then Governor George Pataki, the elected official most responsible for the passage of New York’s charter legislation. New Covenant was a high profile charter school in the state capitol of Albany, and its closure was considered a political liability. Since the SUNY Trustees are gubernatorial appointees, Pataki’s office had political leverage to postpone the final day of reckoning. It was not until the term of a new Democratic governor that the bullet was bit.
The apologies of charter management following the closing decision have studiously avoided these two central lessons.
In its response to the UFT proposed reforms of charter legislation, the New York Charter School Association had decided that it was more important to protect the ability of EMOs to exploit charter schools than to fix flaws in the charter funding formula, so it surprised no one that NYCSA flack Peter Murphy would avoid mention of the long train of EMO failure at New Covenant in his blog post on the closing decision. But silence on the main issue was not enough for Murphy, who managed to contort himself into quite a set of contradictions in his efforts to square the circle of NYCSA policy of placing profits before schools. After boasting that NYCSA had called for the revocation of the New Covenant charter, he praises EMO Victory Schools for vigorously taking the opposite position of seeking renewal and attacks our state union, NYSUT, for not joining in Victory’s self-interested quest. While NYCSA and Murphy are once again talking out of both sides of their mouths, that is not the central issue here. Rather, it is the fact that over the years they have consistently opposed the one measure that could have rescued New Covenant – the replacement of for profit EMO management with a non-profit management whose top priority was education.
Charter management and NYCSA publicist Thomas Carroll, head of the Brighter Choice charter school chain in Albany which recently was the subject of a withering Charter School Institute report for illegally denying admission to students with special needs, took to the pages of the Albany Times-Union to offer his excuses for the closure. Carroll served in high positions in the Pataki administration, but he is silent on the role of the Governor’s office in the renewal of the New Covenant charter for so many years despite its academic performance. Not a word, either, on the failure of for profit EMO after for profit EMO to attain the school’s academic performance benchmarks. No, Carroll just provides the predictable attack on the decision of teachers at the school to unionize in an effort to defend themselves against his for profit EMO allies. In his alternative universe, NYSUT is responsible for the economic crisis brought to us by his friends on Wall Street, as well as the state’s attendant budgetary problems, which meant that last year all public schools – district and charter – had their funding frozen. And this funding freeze – not eleven years of EMO mismanagement – is what led to New Covenant’s demise, he asserts.
It is a simple enough matter to dismiss Murphy’s and Carroll’s apologia, with their self-serving avoidance of the central issues of the New Covenant closure. After all, NYCSA and charter management fiddled while New Covenant burned at the hands of EMOs. But they don’t have to pay the price for putting profits before education. It is being borne by the students, families and educators of New Covenant Charter School.
 The other school closed was John A. Reisenbach Charter School, which lost its charter in 2004 – despite Eva Moskowitz’s efforts to keep it open. Only 13% of Reisenbach’s graduating students met state ELA standards and only 7% met state Math standards.