|Putting Children First||
THE NEW THREATS TO CHARTER SCHOOL
By THOMAS W. CARROLL
THE State University board of trustees just approved seven more charter schools, including four in New York City. That makes 145 charters approved since passage of the charter law in December 1998, including several regular public ("district") schools converted to charter status.
There's much more good news for New York charters - but also a growing sense of unease.
Charters as a group are consistently outscoring their district counterparts. In rankings released yesterday, three of the city's top five public schools are charters.
These schools are hugely popular with parents, who are drawn by high academic and behavioral expectations, the more intimate environment that charters typically offer and their focus on results.
Reflecting this success, support for charters is on the rise. Gov. Paterson and state Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith are charter enthusiasts, as are Barack Obama and John McCain.
Yet several danger signs have popped up for New York charter schools.
1) Charter operators in the city fear the post-Bloomberg era.
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have made New York City one of the most charter-friendly cities in America. When Bloomberg took office, the city had 17 charters; with the latest approvals, that rises to 91 - a five-fold increase.
The two leaders have strongly supported charters, helping secure approvals, making public-school space available on favorable terms and putting aside city capital dollars for charter facilities.
But this support is at risk, thanks both to the possible expiration of mayoral control and the departure of Bloomberg (and presumably Klein) at the end of the mayor's term next year.
2) Charters, especially in New York City, face extreme financial pressures. While serving at-risk students in one of the nation's highest-cost cities, charters get, on average, only two-thirds as much per-pupil money as district schools get. And, while the public pays to build and maintain district schools, the state doesn't provide charters with any facility aid. Some have papered over this shortfall by raising private donations, but that's becoming more difficult in the current economic climate. Charters need and deserve financial parity.
3) Charters face the constant threat of being undercut in the state Legislature at the behest of special interests. The state teachers union continues to work to cripple these innovative schools via various proposed "poison pill" laws. Such bills would cut funding for charters serving elementary- and middle-school grades, or subject charters to onerous state-approval processes for facilities, or eliminate the charter-friendly State University as a chartering entity - or set artificial caps on charter enrollment in areas such as Albany, where parental interest in charters is far higher than the union likes.
4) Charters trying to make a good-faith effort to serve students needing special-education services are blocked by law from contracting with local boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES). School districts use BOCES to provide appropriate instruction for students with special needs, such as emotionally disturbed, autistic, blind and hearing-impaired kids. Charters should have this opportunity, too.
5) Charters are the only public schools blocked by law from providing any pre-K instruction. Yet quality pre-K is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often lack the exposure to literature, reading and numeracy that is common in middle- and upper-income homes: It can help ensure that these kids don't show up to kindergarten already far behind other students. Charters could help, if allowed to do so.
As evidence mounts that most charters are outperforming nearby regular public schools, the governor and state Legislature need to step up their support of charters. For starters, they should "do no harm" - and block anti-charter legislation.
To help successful charters, lawmakers should work toward equal funding, including facilities aid, and also level the playing field on access to special-ed services and authority to offer pre-school.
We've passed the point of arguing whether charters are a good idea. The only question is whether this success will be encouraged or punished.
Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability and chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany.
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