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Gov., union oppose lifting cap on NY charter schools

November 03, 2009
Opposition, including from the governor's office, is forming to an assemblyman's plan to introduce a bill that would remove limits on the number of charter schools allowed in that state.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, announced Oct.19 his plan to introduce legislation to remove an existing cap on charter schools in hopes of improving the chances of New York being awarded federal "Race to the Top" education funding.

However, Alliance for Quality Education Communications Director Nikki Jones said last week her organization believes the removal of the cap could put a financial strain on traditional public schools.

New York permits the State University of New York, the state Education Department and the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education to authorize a total of 200 charter schools in the state, and there are approximately 40 charters available.

"This is the wrong proposal at the wrong time," Jones said. "The only education issue that we should be focusing on right now is the governor's proposal to cut $686 million from public schools, including a $10.5 million cut for the Buffalo City School District. This year the state flat out failed to provide students with a single penny of the promised Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding. If the Legislature does not stand up for our school children by rejecting these cuts, it would be like pouring salt into an open wound."

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed a successful lawsuit in the state Court of Appeals challenging the equity of New York's distribution of education aid to New York City Schools. The court ruled in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's favor and a plan to provide more funds to New York City schools, and other districts in the state, was approved, but in the 2009-2010 budget, less aid was included than the plan called for.

Jones also said the alliance does not believe that a charter school cap will be an impediment to New York having a successful Race to the Top funding application. "We are hopeful that New York will have a highly competitive application that is responsive to parent demands and prioritizes, more time for teaching and learning, and other innovative reforms," Jones said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Race to the Top fund provides competitive grants to states that are instituting education reforms that are innovative and aimed at addressing four education reform areas described in the federal stimulus package of 2009.

The four education reform areas are: adopting international standards and assessments to prepare students for success in college and the workplace; recruiting, developing, retaining and rewarding effective teachers and principals; building data systems to measure student success and inform teachers and principals on how they can improve their practices; and bettering low-performing schools.

Hoyt has said his bill would help New York meet the minimum criterions set by President Barack Obama's administration by lifting what he called prohibitive caps on charter schools.

But Jones said there would be repercussions if more of New York's students start going to charter schools.

"When you have students who leave the district and go to charter schools they take a portion of the aid with them. So what happens to the students who are left behind?" Jones asked. "Those children have very little to go off of. We have been able to see progress, but you have these mid-year budget cuts and not enough funding. It is devastating. It is a step backwards."

Gov. David A. Paterson recently said he would not support legislation that would remove the cap on charter schools.

Marissa Shorenstein, spokeswoman for the governor, said Paterson does not believe removing the cap is warranted at this time.

She said the governor has been very supportive of charter schools and that people should not confuse the two issues involved in this debate — lifting the cap and supporting charter schools — because they are very different.

"Our New York laws on the subject matter," said Shorenstein when asked whether New York would still be eligible for the Race to the Top funds even if the charter school cap remains in place.

Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said the existing state laws that govern charter schools, and which include the cap, would not prevent New York from obtaining the Race to the Top fund money. He also said he supported the governor's position on not supporting legislation to lift the cap on charter schools.

"Sam Hoyt's bill demonstrates that he remains out of touch with everything going on," Iannuzzi said. "It lacks research-based conclusions to make it have any real merit. Between Sam Hoyt and the Charter School Association, what we have is an attempt to manipulate the charter cap to get Race to the Top dollars."

He also said "we should not be thinking about the cap on charter schools, but about these kids, but they [Hoyt and CSA] are not doing that at the moment. They are focused on a collaboration of charters."

Defending his proposed legislation, Hoyt said, "A, I disagree respectfully with the governor, and, B, people need to remember that this is a competition," the assemblyman said.

"Barack Obama and [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan have made it clear that it isn't enough to simply qualify or meet minimum requirements," Hoyt said. "It [Race to the Top] will be based on who will be able to go the furthest when it comes to reforming the way we deliver public education in America. So, for anyone to state that it is not necessary for us to change the laws, I fear that New York state will miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in this time of fiscal crisis."

"The governor is reading the signs from Washington for the Race to the Top funds correctly," Iannuzzi said. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has clearly said "the quality of charter schools and not quantity is important. What we have in New York is designed to demand quality."

He said that until New York has "real accountability and a system of financing charter schools that doesn't devastate charter schools or regular schools, I think the cap is good and the governor wisely understands that."

Despite charter school supporters saying the state could reach its 200-charter cap within the next year, Iannuzzi also said he believes it will be several years until New York reaches its charter school cap and that the priority instead should be to come up with legislation to deal with transparency, accountability, funding and oversaturation of charter schools. "We might then be able to look at changing it or raising the cap," Iannuzzi said.

"Our goal and many other departments in New York state are very well aligned with the Department of Education," he said. "There's a level of expertise that would allow us to be in the running. I have personally had several opportunities to speak to Secretary Duncan as well as Jo Anderson, his senior adviser. They are aware of the potential of New York state."

Just like Jones, what Iannuzzi said concerns him the most is the possibility that funding to public education might be cut, if Paterson's proposal to balance the budget is passed by the Legislature.

"We have an administration in Washington that made education the priority," Iannuzzi said. "The governor put a $680 million cut to our public education. It sends the wrong message to Washington and that worries me more about our chances of getting the Race to the Top dollars. Obama said we should be investing in education and not cutting back."

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