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It's time to hold charter schools accountable


Now that the overdue state budget has been resolved, it’s time for the Legislature to turn its attention to a major issue in state education policy — the lack of accountability and transparency in the state’s charter schools.

Charter schools in New York State received more than $3 billion a year in taxpayer dollars without any real accountability about how they spend the public money or repercussions when many act like private schools and exclude the state’s most vulnerable students.

It’s time for Albany to pass a legislative package to bring real oversight to the charter sector.

The Accountability and Transparency bill, sponsored by Sen. Brad Holman-Sigal and Assembly Member Michael Benedetto, would require charters to demonstrate actual financial need in order to get free public space or rental subsidies.

Charters would have to disclose their assets, and any school with $1 million or more would be ineligible for such assistance. The bill would also cap the salaries of charter officials.

In addition, the measure would ensure that charter schools enroll and retain the same percentage of the most vulnerable children — English language learners and special education students, among others — as the public school district where they are located.

The bill would withhold funding from charters that fail to enroll appropriate numbers of these students, and meeting these targets would become a key component of any charter renewal decisions. Repeated failure to meet reporting requirements would be grounds for termination of a charter.

The Grade Expansion bill, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Mayer and Assembly Member Benedetto, would prevent charters from expanding their grade levels without any substantial review of their operations.

Under current law, charters originally authorized to offer kindergarten to fifth grade can add middle school grades, and even eventually high school levels, by simply applying for a revision of their current authorization. Under this bill, each expansion would require the same level of scrutiny as a new authorization.

The Charter Authorizer bill, sponsored by Sen. John Liu and Assembly Member Benedetto, would address the current imbalance between charter school authorizers that allows some schools to evade strict licensing standards.

Under current law, the state’s Board of Regents, local school districts, and the State University of New York (SUNY) can all authorize the creation of a charter school, but only the Regents can actually issue a charter.

When the Regents review a charter request, they can order changes in the charter’s operating plan to ensure that the school meets the needs of its students and complies with state law. In most circumstances, no charter will actually be issued until the charter’s sponsors meet the Regents’ requirements.

But the SUNY Trustees are in effect permitted to disregard the Regents’ demands and have allowed the renewal of charters with high numbers of uncertified teachers or low numbers of students with disabilities or English language learners.

The charter school movement began with bold promises of remaking the educational landscape. The reality is that charters’ “success” has mostly come at the expense of public school children and families.

Some charter chains have built up huge reserves from private donations, pay inappropriate salaries to their executives, and yet still demand public space and resources. These demands are particularly infuriating from charters that manage to evade requirements to enroll the neediest students even as they divert huge resources from public institutions.

Charter schools claim to be public schools and suck up huge sums of public money. But real public schools serve all students, and meet stringent requirements of law and regulation. It’s time to start holding charter schools to the same standards.