Teaching Profession

Fight Over Charter Cap Erupts in Empire State

February 21, 2006 3 min read

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A School of Their Own

Even though the American Federation of Teachers’ largest local affiliate has opened its own charter school in New York City, the state affiliate is firmly opposed to plans by the governor and legislators to raise the statewide cap on how many charters are permitted in the Empire State.

Following up on unsuccessful efforts last year, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York is seeking legislation to allow 200 new charters to open in the state, including 50 that would be approved by the 1.1 million-student city school system itself.

“Charter schools work,” the Republican governor told members of the Senate and the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, in his Jan. 17 budget address. “The entire 100 charters have now been used. So let’s increase the number.”

Several lawmakers and analysts say they are confident that, by the time budget negotiations are wrapped up this year, the governor will get his wish. “I would predict that the cap is going to be raised this year,” said Sen. James S. Alesi, a Republican from Rochester, noting that the plan is winning support not just from Republicans but also from Democrats, who control the Assembly.

“Much of the appetite for charter schools comes from those urban areas and predominantly minority families that want to have a choice,” he said. “So it’s turning Democrat Assembly members, and most of them are people of color, on to an idea that goes against the grain of the way the Assembly operates.”

‘Unproven’ Experiment?

Currently, any charters approved by the New York City school system or any other district must receive final approval from the state board of regents. Under Mr. Pataki’s plan, the regents’ approval would be unnecessary for New York City.

The effort to raise the charter cap will face resistance, however, from the AFT’s powerful state affiliate, New York State United Teachers.

Only a handful of start-up charter schools in the state have explicitly chosen to be unionized, said Peter Murphy, the policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association. All charters that convert from regular public schools are unionized, based on state law, as well as any start-up charters with more than 250 students.

Testifying before a joint Assembly-Senate hearing this month, a top official with the state union said he believes the state’s charter schools have not proved themselves.

“We cannot stand by idly while the governor dramatically expands the unproven charter school experiment,” said Alan B. Lubin, the union’s executive vice president. “[C]harter schools have not distinguished themselves from public schools in terms of innovative technique, or by raising the level of achievement on state assessments.”

He also objected to the way charters are funded, saying they place a “heavy financial burden on the local school district taxpayer,” and called for major changes to charter finance to address the situation. Mr. Lubin suggested an alternative approach for opening new charters, with a cap tied to local enrollment and local budgets.

For its part, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City recently indicated that it would agree to an increase in the city’s cap if the rules for organizing unions in charter schools were changed.

The union is advocating what’s called a “card check.” Under this approach, if a union collects signed “authorization cards” from a majority of employees, the employer would be required to recognize the union in a collective bargaining unit without the use of a secret-ballot election. It also is calling for anti-retaliation rules that would protect employees who seek to organize teachers in a collective bargaining unit.

“We want to make sure our people are not retaliated against,” said Randi Weingarten, the UFT president.

But the union’s plans are likely to face staunch political resistance. Critics such as Mr. Murphy from the charter school group say giving up the secret ballot for a card check would corrupt the process.

“That is just rife for peer pressure, intimidation, and bullying,” he contended.

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Fight Over Charter Cap Erupts in Empire State

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