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UFT, NYSUT sue to halt charter certification shortcut

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and NYSUT President Andy Pallotta discuss Jonathan FickiesUFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and NYSUT President Andy Pallotta discuss the unions’ lawsuit against weakening teacher certification standards.  

The UFT and NYSUT filed a lawsuit on Oct. 12 to prevent the weakening of teacher certification standards after the SUNY Board of Trustees Charter Schools Committee voted the previous day to allow some charter schools to create their own in-house teacher certification programs with watered-down standards.

At a press conference outside state Supreme Court in Manhattan, UFT President Michael Mulgrew denounced the SUNY committee’s vote to change certification standards, calling it a blatant violation of state education law.

“What the committee did is despicable,” he said.

The UFT/NYSUT lawsuit asks the court to overturn the SUNY committee’s action, charging that it exceeded its legal authority as the state Legislature did not authorize the committee to regulate teacher certification in charter schools.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta called the committee’s decision “a disgrace to our state’s education system and to the students it serves.”

Following the Oct. 11 hearing, Mulgrew characterized the committee’s motivations as a “scheme” coming from “pressure from the outside,” alluding to the deep-pocketed charter lobby.

The new regulations will allow charter schools authorized by SUNY, including Success Academy charter schools, to design their own teacher certification process, bypassing the far more stringent process required of all other public school teachers under state education law.

Four of the five SUNY committee members voted to approve the lax new certification requirements, including former Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the board’s newest member.

One dissenting voice was Trustee Marc Cohen, who asked, “If the students in these underserved communities are in such need, why wouldn’t we staff these charter schools with the best and the brightest?”

Many charter schools, most of which lack union representation, have been plagued with high teacher turnover as their generally younger, more inexperienced staff burn out under the pressure of the arduous working conditions.

In late July, the SUNY Charter Schools Committee, one of two entities in the state that can grant charters, released an earlier version of its certification proposal that immediately triggered a torrent of criticism from a wide cross-section of education policy-makers. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia denounced the original proposal, saying “I could go into a fast-food restaurant and get more training than that.”

In response, the SUNY committee increased the number of hours of classroom instruction that teacher candidates must receive, from 30 to 160 hours, and decreased the number of hours of classroom practice they must complete, from 100 to 40 hours.

Shakeena Gill, a parent whose child attends Success Academy Bronx 2, said 40 hours of teaching practice was not enough. “You have to have experience as well as knowledge,” she said.

Under the change approved by the SUNY committee, charter teacher candidates will now have to pass only a single certification exam, chosen by their employer, rather than the full roster of New York State’s existing licensing tests.

After the vote, Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa issued a joint statement calling the new certification standards “an insult to the teaching profession. ... This change lowers standards and will allow inexperienced and unqualified individuals to teach those children that are most in need.”

Fully licensed teachers at traditional public schools are required to have bachelor’s and master’s degrees from state-approved colleges and universities. They also have to pass state-certification and content-area exams. Every teacher completes a period of student teaching and even working teachers are expected to update their skills on a regular basis.

“It’s not easy to become a certified teacher in New York — nor should it be,” said Mulgrew in the statement he submitted for the hearing. “Our children deserve teachers who have met the highest standards of preparation, and these standards should not be tossed aside because some charter schools have difficulty meeting them.”

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