At 11th Hour, N.Y. Approves 'Strong' New Charter Law

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After a fractious initiation rite, New York has joined the fraternity of states that authorize the independent breed of public schools known as charter schools.

The starting point for the new charter law was a proposal unveiled last spring by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki that prompted strong opposition from such quarters as the state school boards' association, Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew of New York City, and the state and city teachers' unions.

The legislation languished until last month, when the governor signaled that he would veto a hefty pay raise for legislators unless they addressed issues high on his agenda, charter schools chief among them.

Approved in the wee hours of Dec. 18 after intense bargaining between Mr. Pataki and legislative leaders, the measure's passage left some critics fuming over what they saw as blatant back-room logrolling.

"There was no public debate," said Timothy G. Kremer, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, which opposes not only the measure that passed, but also the concept of charter schools. "We found it absolutely abhorrent that it was conducted that way--all at the 11th hour, all behind closed doors, and in the cover of darkness."

But Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the education committee in New York's lower legislative chamber, said lawmakers did not simply cave in to the governor for fear of losing their raises.

"Though the governor made it appear there was a quid pro quo, we would not have passed a bill that didn't meet our concerns about charter schools," he said.

Mr. Pataki, meanwhile, hailed the law as historic in his State of the State Address last week.

"The creation of charter schools in New York represents perhaps the single greatest change to our educational system in this century," he said. "We're giving parents a freedom long denied them--the freedom to choose where their child can get the best possible education within the public system."

'Strong' Charter Law

The new law authorizes 100 new charter schools statewide and the conversion of an unlimited number of existing public schools. With its passage, New York joined 34 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing charter schools, publicly funded schools that typically operate outside of school district control.

The head of a national school-choice-advocacy group that ranks state charter laws called New York's statute "a strong law" that offers "enough flexibility so that good schools can be built unfettered by unnecessary oversight." Jeanne Allen, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, also criticized the New York affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers for opposing the law, and said its passage represented "a major defeat for them."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate in New York City, dismissed Ms. Allen's remarks as "ridiculous." And Ms. Weingarten joined city school officials in contending that the law would drain money from the school system without giving its leaders control over how it is spent, she said the law still was more "union friendly" than most.

For example, staff members at schools that convert to charter status--a process requiring approval both by the local district and a school's parents--will be covered by the labor contracts in their former districts. Start-up schools that enroll 250 students or more their first year will have to be unionized, although smaller schools will not. Schools may hire some uncertified teachers, but only up to 30 percent of the staff.

"If you are really a charter school believer, you're going to find things not to like in this bill," Mr. Sanders said. "And if you're basically opposed to charter schools, you're not going to like it either."

Political Bartering

Under the law, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members may apply for five-year, renewable charters, on their own or with a college, other educational institution, museum, nonprofit corporation, or business.

They will have three places to turn for a charter: local school officials, the state board of regents, or the trustees of the State University of New York.

Charters approved by districts must also win the blessing of the regents, who oversee elementary, secondary, and higher education statewide. But the regents will not have the final say on charters approved by the SUNY trustees. Of the 100 charters for start-up schools, 50 are reserved for approval by the SUNY board, with the rest set aside for local boards and the regents.

The arrangement stemmed from political bartering between lawmakers and Mr. Pataki. While the Republican governor appoints the SUNY trustees, the legislature--in which Democrats hold a solid majority in the Assembly and Republicans a narrower edge in the Senate--choose the regents.

The law forbids the conversion of private schools to charter status and the creation of schools controlled "wholly or in part" by a religious denomination. Some religious leaders have voiced interest in organizing charter schools, a prospect that has alarmed critics, including the UFT.

The Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former Democratic U.S. representative who heads an African Methodist Episcopal church in New York City that runs an elementary school, said the law presents major obstacles to religious leaders who want to set up charter schools. But Mr. Flake, a prominent school choice proponent who pushed hard for a New York charter law, said he hoped those hurdles will be lowered in the future.

"These battles aren't won overnight," he said. "And we're in it for the long haul."

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as At 11th Hour, N.Y. Approves 'Strong' New Charter Law
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