President Michael Mulgrew talks about fairness in charter school law

[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News.]

As New York finalizes its application for the federal Race to the Top program, a proposal to end the cap on the number of charter schools has been promoted as key to our success in getting these new federal funds. But promoters of this proposal are ignoring two other critical issues: The small role that charter schools play in the Race to the Top application, and the fact that city charters are not serving a representative sample of our neediest students.

Despite the heated rhetoric from charter proponents, the fact is that the charter cap accounts for only eight of the 500 points New York can earn on its Race to the Top application.

What's more, Race to the Top guidelines state that charter schools should "serve student populations that are similar to local district student populations, especially relative to high-need students." But the evidence is clear that New York's charter schools are actually becoming a separate and unequal branch of public education.

In glaring examples in the South Bronx, North-Central Brooklyn and Central Harlem, where many of our city's charters have concentrated, these schools enroll fewer of the poorest students than the district schools.

According to an analysis by the UFT using 2007-2008 data from the state Education Department, in Harlem (districts 4 and 5) nearly 72% of students in regular elementary and middle schools qualify for free lunch. Yet in charter schools in and around the neighborhood, the equivalent number is about 61%.

In the South Bronx (districts 7 and 9), 87% of students in district elementary and middle schools are eligible for free lunch, far more than the 62% in nearby charters. In North-Central Brooklyn (districts 14, 16, 19, 23 and 32), the difference is greater, with 80% in district elementary and middle schools eligible for free lunch against 55% in nearby charters.

More striking, it's hard to comprehend how in the South Bronx, charter schools have only about half the number of English language learners as do the district public schools that serve the same neighborhood. Charters as a group also enroll a much lower percentage of students with special needs than do district schools.

So the real issue should not be whether to lift the cap, but how the state can make sure that these inequities are addressed before New York moves forward with its Race to the Top application.

There are other problems with current state law. Private companies are allowed to manage these schools without any real transparency. At Merrick Academy in Queens, for instance, the private board pays more than $1 million a year to the school's management company, Victory Schools, almost 25% of the school's operating budget. Executive pay at some other charter schools exceeds $400,000, far more than the city schools chancellor earns.

The Legislature now has an opportunity to fine-tune the charter school law and reinforce its original intent to help raise the quality of public education for all students. Those changes should ensure that charter schools serve all students equally - including the city's neediest students; that they operate in a transparent and publicly responsible manner; and that profiteers are banned from the charter sector.

Rather than quarreling over the charter school cap, we should be working together to ensure that this city provides all its children a high-quality education, no matter what type of school they attend.

Mulgrew is the president of the United Federation of Teachers.

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