Tuesday, February 23, 2016

New York's Unlegislated Charter School Cap

(This is a guest post from Dirk Tillotson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans, New York and the Middle East. He currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices and One Oakland United. )

Judging by the numbers, the so-called charter movement is dead in NY.  Seriously, when you count the number of charter schools that are being closed and subtract them from new charter approvals, you are about at zero last year.

This was never legislated, immense needs still exist, and more than anything it shows the triumph of bureaucracy.  It’s not that there aren’t qualified planning teams, or communities desiring more options, it is under-resourced charter authorizers.  In an aside from my usual petulance, I am angry, but almost can’t blame them, almost.

New York has two statewide authorizers, State University of New York, Charter Schools Institute (SUNY) and the State Education Department (SED).  So far, from the 2015 authorizing year (SUNY still has an active round), SED approved 4 schools and SUNY approved 2.  By far the fewest approvals in any non-charter cap year (last 2 years were 26 and 25 approvals respectively).
NYC’s Department of Education still oversees several schools, but can’t approve any new ones (which given the state of the department and its charter office is a blessing).  So it’s 6 on the plus side, with a few more likely.

On the minus side, NYC DoE is trying to close 4 schools (its “process” has been completely arbitrary in the past and prior revocations have not held up in court), SUNY had 3 non-renewals, and I didn’t find any for SED.  So that’s minus 7 potentially.

So what is up?

Quoting SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, “I will say this now: I am not scheduling a vote on a single charter, a new charter, until there are additional resources allocated to the Charter School Institute,” as reported in a Chalkbeat article.

I appreciate SUNY’s honesty. They did approve more schools, are a very high quality authorizer (though I have my squabbles around the diversity in their portfolio), and they are right.  You can’t expand the schools and keep the same quality of oversight without more funding.

SED is more opaque, but basically the same thing is happening.  The Charter School Office has had a vacant Director position for months, and I don’t believe it’s listed, creating a key leadership gap.  And even when the job was filled, by generally bright folks, it paid garbage, so they eventually moved on to greener pastures.  Another lack of investment in an office with increasing responsibilities, and approvals have been fewer and further between.

We (the NY charter School Incubator, a program of my non-profit, Great School Choices) worked with teams who applied to SED this year, who would have definitely gotten an interview in prior years, and some would have gotten approved.  They universally got crickets.

Chalkbeat initially reported on the rejection of every charter in the first round noting some strong replications, “Three of the applicants already operated schools and wanted to replicate their models. One of them, Growing Up Green Charter School II, even received an endorsement from Assembly education committee chair Catherine Nolan, whose staunch ally, the teachers union, opposes the growth of charter schools.”  Folks were miffed.

I know the standards, I run a charter incubator that has helped directly start 19 schools and probably read another 30-40 charter applications, and been doing this in NY for almost a decade.  The standard is different now, not necessarily higher or better, but more designed to turn schools down, and more opaque in those rationales.

This has costs, very talented, committed and passionate people who devoted immense time energy and resources into applications, are left stranded.  They reel back in that entrepreneurial energy and go back to teaching, their university job, look at other states to work in, or just leave the education arena.

Communities that organized around schools are left sapped and demoralized, with the same challenges, needs and educational gaps.  And worse still, in a state where only 4.4 percent of all English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English Language Arts. Where there are yawning racial achievement gaps, and an undeniable need for better options for students, that those families are left waiting.

If we want good charter schools, we have to invest in good charter authorizing.  Sadly I don’t see the first really happening yet, and unless we do, we will see less new schools, less oversight, more scandals and declining educational options for communities, while over 40,000 families sit on waiting lists in NYC alone.

It’s ironic, that for a “movement” that is supposedly so well-funded, that was able to overcome so many objections and very formidable opponents, that we should find our well heeled boots stuck in the bureaucratic mud of Albany.  Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.  Our kids and families can’t wait.

No comments: