Scholars of American literature are fascinated by the idea that the Wizard of Oz is an elaborate allegory for turn of the 20th century American populism. [See accounts of the debate here and here.] The character of the wizard is a metaphor for the entire tale, many argue, as there is an elaborate set of meanings lurking below the surface of the text, much like the wizened old man hiding behind the curtain of the seemingly omnipotent wizard.
The public story now being woven around the campaign to lift the cap on charter schools in New York has begun to rival the Wizard of Oz for a narrative where the most interesting developments are hidden from all but the reader with inside knowledge of an esoteric code. In the interests of the democratization of such knowledge, we will decipher the latest chapter in this saga, the proposal Governor Pataki put in his budget recommendations earlier this month [$]. [One can not, however, rely solely on media accounts of these proposals, for reasons I will outline below. The actual proposed legislation can be accessed here, with the pertinent sections beginning on page 31. A crucial last minute amendment to the proposed legislation can be accessed here.]
Let’s take a look at the specifics of the Pataki proposal:
1. Lift the cap on the number of charter schools which can be chartered statewide to 250 schools. [The current limit, which has been used up, is set at 100 schools].
2. Give the Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education independent chartering authority to start on his own an additional 50 charter schools in New York City. [These 50 schools are separate and apart from the 250 schools cited above].
3. Exempt the Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education from the provision that existing public schools can only be converted into charter schools with the consent of the parents of the students attending the school in question. [Since there are no caps on conversion charter schools, this would give the Chancellor unlimited authority to establish charter schools through the conversion route].
4. Allow virtually any not for profit corporation in New York State [the only two restrictions being that the corporation has been in existence for five years or more, and that it has funds of $500,000 or more] to become a chartering entity, authorizing new charter schools.
5. Do not count charters that have been revoked or surrendered against any cap.
6. Allow charter schools access to funds from the state dormitory authority for building construction and renovation.
The news media accounts focused almost entirely on the first three parts of the proposal. The last three parts of the proposal, including the crucial fourth plank, were ignored.
Let’s put on our red ruby slippers, and head down this yellow brick road. Readers of Edwize may remember that we discussed the issue of the New York State charter cap in the past. At that time, we pointed out that UFT President Randi Weingarten had offered publicly to support raising the cap for charter schools in New York City, provided that the higher cap was combined with card check recognition to guarantee the right of teachers in charter schools to organize into unions and bargain collectively. This put the issue rather plainly and clearly. If the objective was to establish additional good charter schools in New York City, than it could be easily achieved, with the support of the UFT. Gaining the support of the UFT only requires leveling the playing field, in the face of heavy handed management efforts to prevent unionization, so that teachers who want to organize into unions are free to do so. But if the objective was to create non-union public schools in New York City, and charter schools were simply the means to achieving this end, then Randi’s offer would be spurned.
Governor Pataki’s budget proposals, a number of which clearly came at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, are the first public answer to Randi’s overture, and the message being sent is clear: rather than take up the UFT’s offer, the Governor and Mayor are intent on pursuing the option of using charter schools to create non-union public schools in New York City. They would rather risk leaving the current cap on charter schools in place, and would rather advance radical changes in the current law which would give the Chancellor the unchecked power to create scores of non-union public schools in NYC, than allow for a lifting of the cap which would only guarantee charter school teachers the right to organize into unions (not, mind you, the ”imposition” of existing collective bargaining agreements on new charters or the mandating of teacher membership in the union, simply the guarantee of the right to organize). And in pursuing that narrow end, some potentially disastrous public policy is being proposed.
The devilish wizard is in the details here. Randi’s offer was to support raising the cap in NYC for schools chartered under the current legislation. This meant that the schools would be chartered either by the Regents of New York State or by the Trustees of the State University of New York. Both of these entities have done a creditable job of chartering, and in establishing SUNY’s Charter School Institute, the SUNY Trustees have created a model authorizing administration for chartering. Moreover, the Charter School Institute and the SUNY Trustees have demonstrated a willingness to act as a responsible steward by closing down a number of poorly performing and dysfunctional charter schools.
Pataki’s proposal would change that status quo for the worse in two vital respects. First, in a measure inexplicably overlooked by the news media, it proposes handing over the authority to charter schools now vested in the Regents and the SUNY Trustees to any not-for-profit corporation that meets the most minimal conditions. The potential for abuse here is as widespread and mind boggling as the panorama of politically-connected and openly partisan non-profits in New York, from the Manhattan Institute to Lenora Fulani’s All Stars Foundation. Ohio adopted a similar measure a number of years ago, and it has led to disastrous results, with large numbers of poorly performing charter schools being run by for profit educational corporations who are, practically speaking, unaccountable [$], all traceable to the plethora of free agent authorizers. Even pro-charter school enthusiasts have expressed reservations about the current state of Ohio charter schools.
If that were not bad enough by itself, the Pataki proposal would give the Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education and through him, the Mayor, the authority to establish 50 charter schools on their own, without the approval of either the Regents or the SUNY Board of Trustees. Additionally, it would give the Chancellor and the Mayor the authority to convert unilaterally any existing public school to a charter school without the approval of the parents and guardians of the students – a proposal that played a role in alienating the Chancellor’s own Parents’ Advisory Council. There are rather obvious questions posed by these two measures: Why do the Chancellor and the Mayor need the unilateral power, stripped of the checks and balances in the current law, to create an entire class of schools outside of the Department of Education they control, when they clearly already possess the authority to give any New York City public school charter status in all but name by exempting these schools from their rules and regulations? Wouldn’t such a step simply extend the scope of the Autonomy Zone, which the Chancellor and the Mayor are now quadrupling? And what is the point of charter status, if the authorizing entity with the power to set conditions for the renewal of the charter and to withdraw the charter is the local school district? Where is the autonomy in that arrangement? There is one objective – and one objective only – served by such an arrangement: it would allow the Chancellor and the Mayor to create unilaterally an entire corps of non-union public schools in New York City. In the Wizard of Charterland, the wicked witch of the west resides in Tweed headquarters on Chambers Street.
There are parts of the charter law which could stand improvement, and the parts of Pataki’s proposal which create a vehicle for the funding of charter school buildings and which do not count revoked or surrendered charters against the cap are reasonable reforms of the status quo. Indeed, insofar as a charter authorizer has the authority to issue a new charter for everyone it revokes, it will provide an incentive for closing down poorly performing and dysfunctional charter schools. There are other parts of Pataki’s proposal, such as the raising of the limit on the numbers of charter statewide, which must take into account the need to hold smaller upstate school districts harmless from the often devastating effects of establishing additional charters, given their limited economies of scale. A real effort to raise the cap on charter schools would take those concerns seriously in a way that this proposal does not.
In the final analysis, the logic of this proposal seems to be one more designed to position Pataki in his bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination than to enact good educational public policy. Pataki’s decision to propose a “fix” for the part of the charter school law which is clearly “not broken,” the authority to charter schools that lies with the Regents and the SUNY Trustees, is politics at its worst, a power grab that would leave the law far worse off than it now is. The creation of multiple chartering authorities, all removed from the institutional accountability to the public which characterize the Regents and the SUNY Trustees, would introduce the crassest forms of political patronage and influence peddling into the charter school process. And the ceding of unilateral power to charter to the Chancellor and the Mayor is clearly for the purpose of undermining the collective bargaining rights and democratic voice of New York City public school teachers.
Charter school advocates in New York need to consider how well served they are by hitching their wagon to the political agendas of Pataki, Bloomberg and Klein. Those agendas are melting, melting, melting.