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Senate panel hears debate over charters

April 26, 2010
While education advocates, legislators and parents call for greater transparency and accountability throughout New York state's charter school system, charter school authorizers argue their schools undergo a rigorous review process before and after a school is created.

At a public hearing conducted by the Senate Consumer Protection, Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee in New York City last Thursday, Sen. Bill Perkins, who chairs the committee, led a discussion to "look at the growing charter school industry."

"Who is minding our schools that are minding our children?" asked Perkins, D-Harlem, who has proposed charter school reform legislation (S.6469/A.10040). The bill would provide the transparency and accountability he said is needed in charter schools and fiscal relief for the school districts where charter schools are located. 

At the hearing, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew was among union leaders who argued "corporations are lining their pockets" with the money of school children and that charters should operate "fairly and without hindrance." Those speaking on behalf of the New York City Department of Education, the state Board of Regents and the State University of New York — the three departments authorized to create charters — countered that for-profit corporations operate only 21 out of 182 charter schools in the state.

According to Jonas Chartock, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, SUNY performs due-diligence reviews of any corporation that wishes to collaborate with a charter and reviews any contract between the two entities.

"We stress to charter school board members … that SUNY's charter agreement is with the school's board of trustees, not its management company. Regardless of any partnership the school may seek, we will always hold the school board accountable for the day-to-day operations of the school," said Chartock.

New York State United Teachers, the UFT and parents of charter school students called for stricter regulations across the charter school system. Mulgrew said for charters to be truly successful, greater transparency, sustainable state funding and the banning of for-profit corporation involvement were needed, along with greater parent and teacher participation and fairness for all students in all regions across the state.

NYSUT members told the Senate committee it would be wise to allow the Comptroller's Office to perform audits of charter schools, a power, the courts recently ruled, it does not have, saying "oversight has been lax." A panel of parents, some from the New York Charter Parents Association, expressed the same views as both unions but called for a student and parent bill of rights and for a parent to sit on the board of each charter school.

"If these are our children and these are taxpayer dollars we deserve to have a say on how the school is governed. Not all charter schools have parent organizations. It depends on whatever the vision of the founder of the charter school is," said New York Charter Parents Association creator Latrina Miley. She went on to say that collocation, the process of putting two or more schools in the same building, was tearing neighborhoods apart because it segregates children into the haves and have-nots.

In response to complaints about collocation, the panel of authorizers said out of the 290,000 students who attend a school with shared space, only 16,000 of them are charter students. When asked about the scandals involving charters portrayed in the papers, the panel said any inappropriate use of public funds is investigated.

While Chartock says SUNY performs regular internal audits, ensures external audits are performed annually and reviews and posts all of the audit findings online, John King, speaking for the Board of Regents and John White, senior deputy commissioner of the city Education Department said they know there is room to further improve the oversight of charters and are working with Chartock to implement some of SUNY's standards.

"We are and always will be steadfastly committed to improving all public schools," said White.

When asked by the panel, all three authorizers said they supported raising the cap on charters because they said it was paramount in receiving round two federal Race to the Top Funding, a statement Perkins earlier said he did not agree with.

Reacting to another piece of legislation that would affect charter schools, Chartock said he did not support a bill that would take away SUNY's power to authorize charters.

Sen. Craig Johnson, D-Port Washington, who is sponsoring single-house legislation that would allow a charter to house any grade at more that one site (S.5177), sat on the hearing panel along with Assemblywoman Inez Barron, D-Brooklyn. Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, D-Bronx, and Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, also listened to the testimony.

Diane Ravitch, an author, education historian and former assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, spoke at the hearing. Ravitch said she was a supporter of the original idea of charter schools but is unhappy with what they have become. She said charters were thought up to freely experiment with students who were struggling with school and at risk of dropping out.

The methods that worked were supposed to be brought back and used in traditional public schools, she said.

Ravitch said she now believes charters are simply seen as competitors of traditional public schools. She cited a Stanford University report that concluded only 17 percent of students in charter schools outperformed those in traditional public schools, with 83 percent doing the same or worse. She went on to say that in her opinion New York's 200-school cap on charterss should not be lifted, but legislators and education officials should work to improve all of the public schools in the state.

Howver, Johnson accused Ravitch of cherry picking information from the report, citing later evidence in the report indicating that charters can provide a sound education and have merit. Ravitch accused Johnson of not reading the full report and merely the summary, to which Johnson replied that he had the full report right in front of him.

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