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Charter Schools Enter Uncharted Waters

Photo (cc) 2010 SpecialKRB

This article originally had the incorrect day for the Panel on Educational Policy's vote on use of school space. The meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 24.


They stood under the scaffolding outside PS 188, the Island School, separated by a narrow walkway and strongly held viewpoints. One group wore orange shirts and carried matching signs in support of the Department of Education's plan to give Girls Preparatory Charter, an elementary school planning to expand into the middle grades, more room in the building. Facing them were parents, students and teachers from PS 188 and PS 94, the other two schools in the facility. They said giving Girls Prep additional space will squeeze the low-income and local kids at PS 188 as well as PS 94's autistic students.

This rivalry on the Lower East Side represents one skirmish in a fight that has raged across the city -- from Harlem to Cypress Hills -- as the Department of Education attempts to carve out places in its buildings for charters schools.

In some ways, this fight is the classic New York struggle over space. But it goes beyond that.

Years after charter schools established themselves as part of the city's education mix, New York City and state now find themselves in the midst of a bitter fight over the role of the privately run, publicly funded schools. Supporters, including the Bloomberg and Obama administrations, point to the success of charters. They say the schools can provide parents with more choice, particularly in lower income communities where families have had few options. The fight against them, some charter supporters say, has more to do with protecting the teacher's union than with educating children.

Other parents and politicians, along with many teachers, fear that the Bloomberg administration wants to turn the public school system over to private operators who will ignore the neediest children in the system. Rather than setting up privately run alternatives to regular schools, these critics say, the Department of Education should concentrate on improving the schools we already have.

Approaching 200

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. But with unions leery of the proposal (even though United Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker was an early supporter), New York did not allow charter schools until 1998, when former Gov. George Pataki, a strong proponent, tied the issue to a pay raise for the legislature.

As of September, there were 99 charter schools in New York City. They serve less than 5 percent of public school students, more than 32,000 children, mostly in the elementary grades. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Schools Chancellor Joel Klein envision doubling the number of charters in the city to 200 schools accommodating for 10 percent of city students --more than 100,000 kids.

Charters must be approved by the State University of New York, the state Department of Regents or the city Department of Education and must comply with a number of rules -- for example, they have to select students by lottery not, say, by competitive exam. While charters set their own curriculum, their students do take state tests. The schools also make their own decisions about hiring and firing and do not have to use Department of Education contractors. Although they can have unions, most do not.

While charters receive a per pupil allocation from the government -- based on per pupil costs in regular public schools -- many spend far more than that thanks to the fruit of outside fundraising. For example, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, according to BusinessWeek, donated $18 million to the Knowledge is Power Program, which operates six schools in New York. This along with freedom from many Department of Education requirements help schools offer smaller class sizes and longer schools days.

Since the state law does not provide charters with money to build facilities, Klein and Bloomberg have opened space in school buildings to them. By one count, about two thirds of the city's charter schools are located in Department of Education buildings.

At its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 24, the Panel for Educational Policy is set to approve about a dozen space allocations involving charter schools. These include placing Lefferts Gardens Charter School in PS 92 in Brooklyn, putting a Bronx outpost of former Councilmember Eva Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy in PS 146 and having IS 302 in East New York share its space with a new Achievement First charter.

Despite crowding in some city schools, buildings overall are about 80 percent full, the Department of Education says. This means that many -- including PS 188 in the Lower East Side -- have available classrooms, according to the department. But what city officials at Tweed see as underutilized areas, parents and teachers see precious space for small group work, science experiments, rehearsals or computer labs. Their schools, they say, will lose these facilities if they have to share space with another school.

Lenore Brown, whose grown son attended IS 302, which is set to share space with a new elementary charter next year, said the school had been overcrowded, until the education department moved another school out. The staff at 302 now uses the extra space for small group instruction.

In addition Brown said, "Our school is developing a performing and acting program." That, she said has contributed to an overall improvement, so that "children in the neighborhood are looking forward to going to IS 302 because of the progress."

Discussing the department's attitude, Brown said, "To me, it seems whatever works, they try to break."

The charter parents see their children's fortunes at stake as well. Hilda Salazar, whose daughter attends Girls Prep, had older children in public and parochial schools and sees charter schools -- particularly Girls Prep -- as a far better alternative.

"It's not only academics" she said. "It's values. It's morals. It's things you need for life."

Salazar wants her daughter to be able to attend a Girls Prep Middle School and is irate over criticism of the school's expansion. "The UFT is behind it all,'' she said.

An Atmosphere of Distrust

Suspicions run high. Jacqueline Ancess, the principal at Manhattan East Side School for Arts and Academies, wrote to parents alerting them that the school is threatened by backroom maneuvering that could evict the arts school to make way for a charter.

"In a secret deal between Moskowitz and the DOE … the stage has been set to evict the school from the home it has been in for over 15 years. … This is only one instance of an attack on a public school system by the very people who should be protecting it," Ancess wrote.

The battle over the allocation of space is echoed in the fight over school closings. Last month, the Department of Education, despite pleas from parents, student and teachers, decided to phase out19 schools. Many opponents say the closings are part of a general attempt by the Department of Education to squeeze out the city's neediest and most at risk students and pave the way for more charters.

"Parents are legitimately angry about schools being closed," said James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York Charter School Center, but the explanation being put forward by opponents, he said, "is a narrative that the UFT is interested in."

"The city is making some necessary changes and ruffling a lot of feathers," said Steven Evangelista, co-director for operations at the Harlem Link Charter School.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew has said the union is not necessarily against charters. But at a rally in Harlem last month, he said creating charters and small schools "is not supposed to be about putting one school against the other, one parent against the other." (The UFT's press office did not return calls for this story.)

The Charter Cap

Space is just one issue. If the city creates more charters, it needs a change from Albany. Current state law allows a maximum of 200 charter schools. Prompted by the federal government's Race to the Top Fund, which rewards school systems that encourage charters, Gov. David Paterson earlier this year sought to raise, if not eliminate, the cap.

The legislature responded by setting a number of conditions, including a requirement that the community approve the placement of a charter in an existing school building. Bloomberg, for one, viewed the Senate proposal as "poison pill." In the end, neither Paterson's proposal nor the legislature's alternative passed, and the charter cap remains stuck at 200.

"This bill, masquerading as a charter cap lift, instead would have shackled chartering beyond recognition," Peter Murphy of the New York Charter Schools Associationhas said. "The teachers union narrowly missed terminating charters, practically speaking."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver tied the rejection of Paterson's proposal directly to the fight over space. "People who were supporters of charters previously have become anti-charter as a result of their experiences," he told the Times.

Having lost their bid to raise the cap, charter school supporters have now geared up to fight what they see as a disproportionate cut in state education aid.

Power Plays

Merriman of the New York Charter School Center, which helps charters get started, said the opposition to charters has arisen precisely because the movement has strengthened its position.

For years he said, unions and others "thought we would remain on the margins." Now, he said, New York "has a charter movement that works and is a model and the envy of other people." If charters continue to expand, Merriman said, many students would attend schools where the teachers and staff do not belong to a union. "That political threat is what's at work here. Unions looked and said, 'That's a prospect we don’t like,'" Merriman said.

But State Sen. Bill Perkins, who has opposed the cap, sees it differently. Charters, he said at a recent panel, "have not been accountable in terms of the success they are achieving and in delivering services to all children."

While only a small percentage of city kids go to charter schools, they play a larger role in some communities, notably Harlem. A recent count of the 29 Manhattan charter schools, placed 24 north of 96th Street. The concentration of charters in black and Latino areas of the city, Perkins has said, creates a system that is "separate and unequal."

Many parents in Harlem and other poor communities counter that it is the conventional public schools that have created a separate and unequal system. "Unfortunately," charter school parent Daniel Clark Sr. said at the panel, "where there are parents of color and kids of color, the schools are failing, district schools."

Merriman agrees. Charters, he said, "are working and parents want them."

Whose Research?

Statistics prove charter schools do better, say the Department of Education and charter school backers. A study by Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford University economist, found New York students who went to charters from kindergarten through eighth grade did almost as well on the eighth grade math test as their counterparts in suburbia, nearly eliminating the so-called achievement gap.

Another recent Stanford study, this one by Margaret Raymond, found that over a three-year period city charter school students did four points better on standardized reading tests than similar kids who did not attend charters and 15 points better on the math test.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Raymond said not all charter schools in the country show these kinds of results. But, she continued, "charter schools as a whole [were] better in New York than in any other city we have studied." She credited this to the strong support for charters, the organization that can guide new schools and "high quality oversight."

Diane Ravitch, an education historian frequently critical of the Bloomberg administration has cited another reason: Many charters in New York "have wealthy sponsors who donate millions of dollars to their schools. This helps them to have smaller classes and more resources than the local public schools."

While the numbers look good on the surface, critics, notably the United Federation of Teachers, have taken aim at these claims. They say charters do not represent a true cross section of New York students, neglecting, in particular, children who do not speak English, are homeless or require special education. The union's recent study, Separate and Unequal, found that while 14.2 percent of city students are English language learners, only 3.8 percent of charter students are.

Private Operators

Regardless of the results, the very idea of private organizations and companies, however well intentioned, makes some people uneasy.

"Stop the mayor, the public school slayer," opponents of school closings chanted at a rally outside Bloomberg's East Side home last month.

Take the statement of Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Prep, a charter in Harlem, as he argued for raising the charter cap. "What the legislature hasn’t seemed to understand," he said to the Times, "is that the best charter operators in the country are mobile, and when they do harmful things to charters, the best operators move to more supportive environments."

Traditional public schools have to serve all kids, charter critics say, while charters do not. At the meeting on school closings last month, a representative of State Sen. John Sampson warned, "Charter schools are coming in and the people that go to these [closing schools] cannot enter the charter schools for whatever reason."

Another person declared, "Bloomberg is in a race to put as many charter schools as possible in our schools because it’s all about the money."

Critics point to the several hundred thousand dollar a year salaries paid to some charter executives, such as Moskowitz and Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone. And they see opportunities for cronyism and favoritism.

Canada of the Children's Zone has had close ties to the mayor. On one hand, he supported the overturning of term limits and the continuation of mayoral control -- and lobbied hard for both. Canada meanwhile has reaped hundreds of thousands in city contracts as well as in personal contributions from the mayor.

Earlier this month the Daily News reported that Canada's Harlem Promise Academy is one of three politically connected charters that will get city capital funding.

Another school slated to receive funding -- PAVE Academy in Brooklyn -- is run by the son of a man who has given millions to Bloomberg's educational charities.

Then there is the case of the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries. The city plans to put the school in what has been Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx, closing down all but one its vocational programs. The department cites Smith's low graduation rate and mediocre performance. But according to reports in both the Times and the Daily News, the charter has many problems of its own. Its founder and a board member have been charged with embezzlement (they denied it but resigned from their charter posts). Of the 15 teachers at the charter in September, only five remain, and the charter will take fewer students in special education and from low-income families than Smith has.

Reviewing the situation at the school, Juan Gonzalez wrote, " One day soon, our city will wake up to discover that Bloomberg's mad rush to create hundreds of independent charter schools has unleashed bigger financial scandals than in the bad old days of community school boards."

Evangelista, though, said charters are subject to intense scrutiny. "The governing system for charter schools makes them more publicly accountable than the system that existed before mayoral control," he said.

In the Classroom

At Harlem Link Charter School on West 112th Street, these controversies seem far away. In one class students work on their own in small groups. In another students devise a Venn diagram to chart the similarities and differences between strawberries and oranges. One difference most agree on: You can eat all of a strawberry, but few people eat orange peels.

Siri Cortes, a fifth grader who has been at Harlem Link since kindergarten considers that. "You can't eat the leaves," she said.

In the hallway, Siri expresses enthusiasm for a lot of what goes on in school and gets excited when Evangelista tells her about a Madeleine L'Engle book featuring a character named Siri.

Asked whether she likes Harlem Link, Siri pauses, "I don’t know how I could dislike it when it's the only school I've ever been to," she said.

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