When the UFT started our own charter school in East New York five years ago, we knew that the performance of the school would be a matter of public record, but we embraced that accountability for our work. We want our school to be the best school that it can be, providing the East New York community with a choice of educational excellence. That requires that we are unsparing in the analysis of where our school needs to improve, even as we note what it has accomplished. It was with that spirit that we read the report of the SUNY Charter School Institute recommending the renewal of our school’s charter for three years.
For public accountability to be genuine, it must be based on complete and accurate information. The SUNY Charter School Institute recommendation has led to a number of blogosphere posts which misrepresent the data on the school’s performance from that report for political purposes. Here we set the record straight.
UFT Charter School And The DoE’s School Progress Reports
The blog of charter management financier Ken Hirsh suggests that on the NYC Department of Education’s School Progress Reports, the UFT Charter School is scoring very low, at the bottom of NYC charter schools. The actual School Progress Reports tell a different story. The UFT Charter School received a cumulative grade of ‘B’ this year. When one lists all of the NYC charter schools receiving School Progress Report grades this year, it is clear that among these schools, the UFT Charter School was right below the cut off point for an ‘A’ – the charter school immediately above the UFT received a grade of ‘A.’ Eleven NYC charter schools scored lower than the UFT Charter School.
Equally important, it is clear that the peer index of the School Progress Reports – a rough measure of the concentration of need in a school – places the UFT Charter School near the very top of New York City charter schools, as serving one of the neediest student populations. When one examines the UFT Charter School against the charter schools the DoE places in its peer group [that is, charter schools the DoE believes has similar concentrations of need], it falls right in the middle of the group – four schools have higher School Progress Report grades, and four schools have lower School Progress Report grades.
UFT Charter School and the Social Studies Exams
The Hirsh blog also challenges the statement of AFT President Randi Weingarten, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the UFT Charter School, that 95% of the school’s students scored proficient on the 5th grade Social Studies exam, simply because the grades were reported after the Charter School Institute report was written. Those grades are a matter of public record. The blog reports that only 38% of the students scored proficient on the 8th grade Social Studies exam, but it leaves out the important context provided in the Charter School Institute report – that scores in that exam have been low across the city and state, and that in the last two years for which we have data, only 14% and 20% students in the local community school district where the UFT charter school is located scored proficient.
The Student Population of the UFT Charter School
On the blog of the charter management New York City Charter School Center, CEO James Merriman contends that the Charter School Institute report shows that our school does not have the same numbers of high needs students – “fewer special education, fewer English Language Learners and fewer free lunch students” – than the schools of the surrounding district. This, he goes on, “obviat[es] for once and for all the union’s inferences that differences in those numbers are the result of cheating and manipulation—and showing that those differences are structural and not amenable to statutory fixes that the union has trumpeted (the real purpose of which are simply to limit charter school growth).”
Merriman’s comments omit the context found in the report: 70% of the UFT Charter School’s students are free lunch, placing it in the very top ranks of charter schools. Moreover, the combined free and reduced lunch for the UFT Charter School is greater than that of the local district. The report does not provide comparative data for Special Education students. It clearly documents that English Language Learners are underrepresented in our charter school.
The more fundamental difficulty here is that the inferences cited by Merriman have not been drawn by the UFT, but attributed to us by him. Our analysis is quite different. We recognize that there are charter schools illegally denying admissions to students with special needs, as evinced by the recent case of a Brighter Choice charter school in Albany. But in our view that is only a small portion of the problem: the more important dimensions come with the system of choice employed for New York charter school admissions, as it has a built-in bias toward the under-representation of groups of high needs students. Simply put, since a system of choice such as that used for New York charter school admissions requires more parental involvement, it will attract families who are more motivated and possess greater social capital — parents “in the know.” Not surprisingly, the children of these parents are better prepared for school and experience fewer challenges to their learning. It is our experience at the UFT Charter School that a broad based recruitment strategy can bring into a school a share of free lunch students that approaches the surrounding district – assuming that the school does NOT focus its marketing on more upscale families, which will skew the lottery pool and the student population.
But such ordinary due diligence is not sufficient for recruiting students with special needs and especially not for English Language Learners. The unequivocal data in the UFT’s Separate and Unequal report and in the UFT Charter School’s own enrollment experience suggest that more than good intentions are needed to create greater equity across the charter sector. Legislative action is required. Modifications to charters’ lottery system, either through weightings or preferences or other structured adjustments, are in order, because a laissez-faire system of unregulated choice produces unequal access which is simply unacceptable in a system of public schooling for a democratic society. It is hardly hypocritical for the UFT to call for these changes – frankly, we know from our own experience that these reforms are necessary. For charter management such as Merriman to suggest that these arguments are merely rhetorical betrays the very purpose of the charter school movement and the reforms needed so that it can fulfill its original promise. Surely the academic advantage that charter schools accrue by serving a less needy population cannot be legitimate grounds for opposing efforts to have them serve the same students, especially the neediest students, as other public schools.
The UFT Charter School Budget
Lastly, in the pursuit of his longstanding campaign to pit charter schools against district schools on budget matters, Merriman imputes to the UFT base motivations for submitting to the Charter School Institute a budget which anticipates that the school would receive its scheduled revenues. We understand that with the current budgetary woes of the state and city, it is unlikely that we will receive the scheduled funding, and that like other schools, we will have to figure out how to minimize the damage done to our students’ education by such cuts. But the UFT is not going to surrender before the battle has been joined: we have been fighting in Albany to ameliorate the draconian cuts to education laid out in the governor’s budget, cuts which would decimate charter and district school alike and lead to massive layoffs. Merriman and others in charter management have stood on the sidelines in that fight, and cynically used the prospect of cuts to divide charter schools and charter teachers from other public schools and public school teachers. To do so in the name of solidarity surely takes hubris to new and extraordinary heights.