Testimony on charter schools

Testimony of Leo Casey, before New York City Council Education Committee

Good afternoon, Chairman Jackson and members of this distinguished committee. My name is Leo Casey, and I am Vice President of Academic High Schools for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you on this important topic.

Twenty years ago, the late UFT and AFT President Al Shanker laid out a compelling vision for a new and different type of public school. Freed from stultifying state and district bureaucracy and micro-management, this public school would be an educational laboratory, an incubator of innovative approaches to teaching and learning which would be shared with other public schools. The men and women who worked in this school could be empowered as educational professionals to use their skills, knowledge and experience to provide the highest quality education for their students. The school itself would have organic ties to the community it served. Shanker called this new type of public school a “charter school.”

Today, we in the United Federation of Teachers remain deeply committed to this original Shanker vision of a public “charter school.” And when it comes to this vision of charter schools, we don’t simply talk the talk. We walk the walk: we have started two charter schools of our own in East New York, and we have partnered with Green Dot to start a third charter school in the South Bronx. We proudly represent educators in nine charter schools in New York City, and our national union, the American Federation of Teachers, represents many more across the country.

The original Shanker conception of a public “charter school” was not ideological and political, but educational. In recent years, however, political ideologues opposed to public education and to teacher unions have sought to turn the charter school concept into its opposite, using it as a vehicle to privatize public education and undermine teacher voice and professionalism. To this end, these political ideologues divisively pit school against school, parent against parent, charter against district, using the politics of conflict. That we will always oppose, as educators and as citizens. Our democracy depends upon public schools, both district and charter, which unite us as Americans.

What is at issue here is not the existence of charter schools, but their character. Charter schools must be “public schools” in the fullest meaning of the term, dedicated to education for the public good and in our common purposes as American citizens. They must serve all and bring us together. They must be a force for improving public education.

For the promise of charter schools to be fulfilled, we believe that they must rest on a foundation of six pillars:

  1. QUALITY: Charter schools must provide a high quality education and meet the same educational standards, serving the same students, as district public schools.
  2. INNOVATION: Charter schools should be places of educational experimentation, developing and testing out new approaches to teaching and learning which can then be disseminated among all public schools.
  3. REAL CHOICE: Charter schools should supplement, not supplant, existing public schools. They should provide students and their families with more choices among quality public schools, including a choice to attend a traditional neighborhood school. It is important here to maintain a balance between neighborhood schools and charter schools, such as we have advocated for years.
  4. EQUITY: Charter schools and other public schools must be treated equitably, provided with equivalent resources and supports. No student should be educationally shortchanged because the school he or she attends is not in political favor.
  5. VOICE: Charter schools must welcome the participation of parents and teachers in important educational decisions, and the right of charter school staff to organize and bargain collectively must be recognized.
  6. ACCOUNTABILITY: Charter schools must be accountable, in public and transparent ways, for student performance, admissions and enrollment policies and how public funds are used, as rigorously as district schools are held accountable.

We do not simply advocate these principles for all charter schools; we live by them in the charter schools we have sponsored and in our representation of teachers in other charter schools. The educational records of our charter schools demonstrate that far from being an impediment to learning, real parent and teacher involvement in school governance makes schools better. Our ability to provide such features as a longer school day and intensive literacy and numeracy instruction for our students without placing impossible time and work demands on educators demonstrates not only that schools can make such innovations, but that they can accomplish that in sustainable ways which can be replicated on scale. The school-based contract we have negotiated for Amber Charter School, and are now negotiating at other charter schools where we represent the educational staff such as Green Dot, show that collective bargaining can take place in a way that respects both the uniqueness of a charter school and the professionalism of the educators who perform all of the essential work within it. Our record is a public record.

What Path For New York City Charter Schools?

Recent developments with respect to New York City charter schools have raised serious concerns for many in the public education community. An increasingly obvious strategy is being pursued to concentrate the placement of charter schools in just three New York City communities — Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. Of the 18 charter schools which opened in New York City in September 2008, 14 went into these three communities: 5 in Harlem, 5 in the South Bronx, and 4 in Central Brooklyn. Of the 79 charter schools now operating in New York City, nearly three-quarters (or 58 schools) have been located in these three targeted communities: 21 in Harlem, 19 in Central Brooklyn and 18 in the South Bronx. Today, in Harlem, 31 percent of all elementary and middle schools are charter schools; in the South Bronx, 20 percent are charter schools; and in Central Brooklyn, 14 percent are charter schools.

This strategy has been undertaken in a coordinated fashion by a number of influential charter school organizations, by conservative philanthropies that are playing an increasingly prominent role in the private funding and development of charter schools and by the New York City Department of Education. There are charter organization documents, such as Flooding the Zone, which discuss this strategy in considerable detail.1 The Walton Family Foundation, established by the founder of Wal-Mart, has funding guidelines designed to promote it: Walton will only support New York City charter schools located in Harlem.2 And the New York City Department of Education has placed the vast majority of the 58 charter schools located in these communities within district school buildings and buildings built with DOE capital funds.

This strategy breaks radically with the original concept of charter schools, in which they complemented and enhanced district schools in a more expansive and diverse system of public schools. The new concept is to create “charter districts” in which district schools are replaced with charter schools, a policy which actually reduces real choice for families.

In the pursuit of this strategy, the Department of Education recently announced an unprecedented scheme to turn over entirely to charter schools the buildings of three district schools — PS 194 and PS 241 in Harlem and PS 150 in Central Brooklyn — it had originally slated to phase out starting in September 2009. Two of these three schools — PS 150 and PS 194 — were in good standing with the New York State Education Department and had met their annual yearly progress benchmarks under No Child Left Behind through the 2007-08 school year; the third — PS 241 — went from a B on its Department of Education school progress report last year to a D this year.

In taking these steps, the Department of Education would have unilaterally eliminated the attendance zones for the three elementary schools, leaving the families living in them without a guaranteed seat in a neighborhood public school. State education law delegates to the Community Education Council (CEC) the power to rezone the Community School District, but the Department had not sought the approval of the CECs. People's voices should have been heard, but they weren't because the CECs were bypassed. When we talk about the need for checks and balances, this is a perfect example.

Parents from those three schools and members of the CECs for the districts in which they are located were joined by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and the UFT in filing a lawsuit against the DOE for eliminating the attendance zones in violation of state law. Late Thursday, the Department of Education announced that it would rescind its plans to close the three schools, although the details of their plan are not yet clear.

What has been particularly distressing about the Department of Education’s approach to these three schools was the historic and continuing failure to provide them with the supports and resources necessary for their success. For example, PS 194 has historically had high class sizes and has gone through a series of unsuccessful principals in recent years. Rather than eliminating all district schools from these neighborhoods, the DOE should be fulfilling its prime responsibility to provide families with a real choice of a quality district school and a charter school. If the DOE knows that schools are struggling, its job is to improve the quality of education in them. Strong, successful neighborhood schools are a necessary foundation of vibrant communities.

All three schools that had been slated for closure by the DOE share some important characteristics. They serve a much higher proportion of students living in poverty than their districts and the city as a whole. PS 150 has 97 percent of its students eligible for free lunch. They have large numbers of English Language Learners. In PS 241, nearly 1 in 5 students fall into this category. They have a predominantly African American student body, on average 78 percent of the total.

Compare this profile with the characteristics of charter schools from the charter organizations that had been slated to take over these buildings. They serve thirty percent fewer students living in poverty. They serve no English Language Learners. And this is reflective of charter schools affiliated with the large charter organizations across the city: of the 56 charter schools for which there is data, only three have as many English Language Learners as the city average; the majority of those schools — 36 in total — report no English Language Learners. Comparative Special Education data is currently unavailable, but anecdotal accounts indicate that similar patterns exist. It is only the union charter schools and the small “mom and pop” charter schools that educate their fair share of New York City with the greatest needs. And yet all charter schools are funded by a formula which assumes they have enrolled the citywide average of English Language Learners and other special needs students.

If the DOE had been successful in eliminating the attendance zones of these three schools, what would have happened to those children with great needs? If it continues to pursue its strategy of replacing district schools with charter schools, what will happen to the students living in poverty, the English Language Learners, the students with special needs in Harlem, the South Bronx and the Central Brooklyn?

We are now seriously concerned about a new situation in Harlem. In order to pursue its charter strategy, the DOE has taken away needed space from PS 811, a well-functioning and much-needed District 75 Special Education school that serves 100 Harlem youth with the greatest needs.

In order to accommodate the various special needs presented by their student populations, District 75 programs such as PS 811 require sites with special facilities and equipment. PS 811 is terrific program for pre-kindergarten to third-grade students with severe and multiple disabilities such as autism. Their students are emotionally disturbed and need behavior intervention. As you can imagine, stability and continuity of services are very important to these types of programs. The school also enjoys a high level of parental engagement, with three quarters of the parents attending the most recent Parent—Teacher night.

PS 811 already shares space with two other schools — the Harlem Success Academy and the Harlem Gems. It has been losing space each year, children are being served in hallways, and its layout within the building is already fractured between different floors and different sides of the building. They cannot afford to lose any more rooms. The Harlem Success Academy wants to add another grade of about 150 students and will need 5 or 6 additional classrooms in this building for the 2009-2010 school year. Uprooting these special needs kids and dispersing them to other sites would not be in their best interest, and we strongly oppose DOE plans to do so. It is time to dramatically rethink the DOE’s current practice of zero-sum game charter school siting in Harlem, Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx which pits school against school and student against student.

Chairman Jackson, you and your colleagues on this committee have been stalwart champions for eliminating school overcrowding and lowering class sizes in all New York City public schools. You have been eloquent on how inadequate the DOE’s five year capital plan is in meeting these important goals. In this respect, it adds insult to injury that the DOE is committing $200 million of those limited funds to build brand new buildings for charter schools in the some of the areas of the city that have the least need for new seats.

I alluded to these issues in the hearings on the DOE’s five year capital plan held by this committee on March 18th. At that time, I pointed out that a new elementary charter school building has just been built in the Community School District which is second from the bottom in the city in terms of its need for new seats. A new high school currently under construction is slated for a CSD that is 27th out of 32 in terms of its need for news seat. Not one of the ten new charter school buildings being built under the DOE’s proposed five year capital plan is going into one of the CSDs with the greatest need for new seats, as measured by the DOE’s own latest Enrollment-Capacity-Utilization Report (the ‘Blue Book’). Instead, all of the new buildings being constructed for charter schools are going into areas of New York City which will advance the strategy of creating districts where district schools are replaced by charter schools.

New York City certainly needs new public school facilities. But with such great need across the city and limited capital funds to meet it, how can we justify locating new public schools where the need is the least?

Put The Public Back Into “Public Charter School”

New York State education law is clear and unambiguous: charter schools are intended to be public schools, just as Al Shanker envisioned twenty years ago. The law funds charter schools with public money; it requires that they admit students from their districts in open lotteries; it demands that they meet the same learning standards and administer the same state tests as other public schools; and it insists that they conduct their affairs in an open and transparent manner.

But the public character of charter schools has increasingly been put into question by those who would remake them into vehicles for the privatization of public schools and the dismantling of public education. Again, the politics of conflict are being put into play by these special interests.

Given these trends we question whether public funding for charter schools managed and supported by private entities is moving in the direction of privatized use for private agendas. For example, unlike in the public system, there is no transparency of the salaries of the CEOs and principals of charter schools. In addition, school construction planning and costs via DOE’s School Construction Authority (SCA) are detailed for district schools and hidden in aggregate form for charter schools. With three-quarters of construction costs for new charter school buildings funded by public funds without concomitant cost accountability to the public, SCA/DOE only answers to itself and the mayor, while engineered by private concerns.

We question the marketing techniques and the admissions and enrollment policies that promote universality in words and result in non-existent English Language Learner student populations, in low Special Education enrollments and below the norm poverty indices in the neighborhoods where the charter schools are located.

Chairman Jackson and distinguished members of this committee, this strategy of creating entire districts in which charter schools would supplant district schools, this policy of the DOE abandoning its responsibility to provide quality neighborhood public schools across the entire city, would remake the very constitution of public education in New York City and in other places. Yet when has it been raised for public discussion? Where has it been proposed on editorial pages? When has it been brought before the Panel for Educational Policy? When has the Chancellor or members of his administration brought it to this Committee, or to the appropriate committees of the State Legislature? It has been a policy made and executed behind closed doors, without any public oversight or review. If ever there was a demonstration of the need for checks and balances in the governance of New York City public schools, this strategy and policy is it.

The UFT wants all New York City public school children to have every opportunity to learn in creative and nurturing environments with expectations for high academic achievements and exemplary character. We support adding charter schools to the mix of public education, as a means of improving and supplementing public district schools. The expansion of charter schools must follow state education law, and be guided by the pillars of quality, innovation, real choice, equity, voice, and accountability. And it must be combined with, not come at the expense of, the reinvigoration and improvement of neighborhood public schools. It’s time to put the public back into “public charter school.”


1 http://www.tilsonfunds.com/Personal/FloodingTheZone.pdf

2 http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/forgrantseekers/instructions.asp

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