With growing appeals for changes in New York’s charter school law, prominent elected officials joined the United Federation of Teachers today in a call for major reforms which would ensure that charter schools become public schools in the fullest meaning of the term — not private schools supported with public funds.
State Senator John Sampson, leader of the Senate’s majority Democratic Conference, and New York City Comptroller John Liu joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew in this call. State Senators Eric Schneiderman and Toby Stavisky and State Assembly members Michael Benedetto, Alan Maisel, Jose Peralta, Adam Clayton Powell, IV and Linda Rosenthal were present and participating in the call.
Among the proposed changes are:
- a mandate for charter schools to serve the same proportion of the neediest students as the local community district in which they are located;
- a cap on charter management fees and salaries;
- a prohibition of ‘for profit’ management and operation of charter schools;
- full financial and operational transparency for charter schools;
- common sense fixes to a broken charter funding formula;
- independent school leadership teams, as well the rights of charter school educators to union representation and the rights of families to independent parent associations;
- restrictions on the NYC Department of Education’s practice of pitting of district schools against charter schools over space allocations.
These fixes to the law are a necessary and essential component of any change in the law. A complete list of the reforms proposed for the charter school law are included in the report prepared by the UFT and published today, Separate and Unequal: The Failure of New York City Charter Schools to Serve the City’s Neediest Students.
“Charter schools represent an experiment in pursuit of excellence, and we all applaud that intention,” Senate Majority Conference Leader John L. Sampson said. “But in these tough economic times, those of us in government must demand and extract greater accountability and transparency from every dollar we invest, especially in support of our great asset — the education of our children.”
“The discussion of charter school must be honest. The disparities [in the numbers of high needs students and English Language Learners] raise a great deal of concern,” Comptroller John Liu said. “We have limited resources for public education, they must be going to the classrooms and serving kids, not lining corporate pockets.”
Separate and Unequal documents the need for these reforms. The report shows that taken as a group, New York City charter schools are failing to educate their fair share of low-income [free lunch] students, English Language Learners and Special Education students. Charter schools enroll a much smaller proportion of those students than their local community school district — despite the fact that the existing act explicitly mentions the education of at risk students as one of the purposes of charter schools. Such a pattern means that the students with the greatest needs do not have an equal opportunity to attend charter schools in New York City. While a minority of charter schools — mostly unionized — are making a real effort to serve these students, the great majority are not. Since the charter funding formula is based on the average enrollment of high needs students across the city, the report concludes, the great majority of charter schools are being funded for students they don’t actually serve.
Separate and Unequal also documents exorbitant charter management fees and inflated charter management salaries, far in excess of school district overhead and salaries, that divert public funds from schools and students. Some of the most egregious cases are those involving for-profit management companies.
It is important that charter schools be treated fairly by the law, and the reforms designed to fix the broken charter funding formula are intended to do precisely that. Where charter schools have legitimate complaints about funding, such as the current lengthy two year lag, a proposal is being made to shorten this time period. For schools whose educators participate in the Teachers Retirement System, a reform would remove pensions from the funding formula, with the cost assumed by the local school district. And to ensure fairness among different charter schools, funding for the neediest students such as English Language Learners, Special Education students and free lunch students would be done on an actual per capita basis.
“New York’s charter school experiment has led to some promising innovations, but as a group New York City charter schools have become a separate and unequal branch of public education, working with a far smaller proportion of our neediest students than the average public school,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said.
“The current law allows charter schools to operate without the transparency in their finances and operations that officials and the public need to judge their success; it also permits charters to become profit centers, paying inappropriate salaries and outsize management fees. Until all these issues are addressed, we are urging the Legislature not to consider any other action on charter schools, including the potential lifting of the charter school cap.”