As originally envisioned, charter schools were supposed to be a way of empowering communities to have a stronger voice in decision-making at their local schools — with community leaders, parents, and teachers on the boards and decisions being made in ways that gave stakeholders direct access rather than layers of bureaucracy.
In New York, however, the expansion and oversight of the state’s charter sector seems to be moving in the opposite direction. As evidence, I encourage a review of yesterday’s decision by one of the state’s charter authorizers to allow the Success Charter Network to merge at least five of its schools (and soon eleven, and likely eventually all forty of their schools) under a single board — essentially creating a new school district run by non-profit corporate leadership rather than public officials or local leaders.
If you haven’t heard much news about this plan, it’s not surprising — while the boards of the network’s schools approved the mergers in February, the DOE didn’t have a hearing to get local input on the proposal until this past Friday (with two days notice) — and didn’t release any of the documents explaining what the mergers would look like. For example, parents in these neighborhoods only recently learned that the merger would include an increase in the Network’s fees from 10% to 15% of each student’s funding (a part of the proposal which is still under consideration by the SUNY Charter School Institute).
What’s worse, at the committee meeting to approve the mergers (which was announced on the institute’s website over the weekend), the committee did not discuss either the statements given at Friday’s hearing or the one submitted by the UFT last Thursday, all of which raised substantive concerns about the impact of the mergers on parent and public voice in their local charter schools. When questioned as to why these statements were not publicly considered before the committee’s vote, their legal counsel stated that the SUNY K-12 Education Committee was not legally obligated to publicly consider any input on mergers or other charter revisions that didn’t come directly from a charter’s district of location.
According to their legal counsel, Chancellor Walcott had decided not to pass on any of the statements made at Friday’s hearing in time for the committee’s meeting. Since no public comments were accepted at the committee’s meeting itself, public input on this incredibly important new merger policy and its first ever implementation was effectively shut out of this decision.
As we expressed in the statement we sent to the committee on Thursday, this series of events sets a terrible precedent for future efforts to comply with the state law’s mandate to effectively oversee charter schools and make responsible decisions about which charter schools and networks have earned the right to expand. The SUNY Board of Trustees should look closely at the way in which today’s decision was made, and should take steps to ensure that this exclusion of public comment from decisions about the state’s public schools does not happen again.