If charter schools save one student, it’s worth it

First of all, before we go any further, my son Jonas is the executive director of the State University of New York Charter School Institute. That makes his group one of the three governmental entities permitted to authorize charter schools. Also, by way of disclosure, I spent most of my academic career as a proud member of the United Federation of Teachers (New York State United Teachers). My mother thought that Albert Shanker, the long-time leader of the teacher’s union, was a deity. Wow, I’m glad that’s over but it is often said that full disclosure is the best antiseptic.

That said, there is a war going on in New York. The Bloomberg administration, the president of the United States, the governor of New York, the United States secretary of education, and many others are in favor of charter schools, public schools that are established in places where other public schools are often failing. They often out-perform regular public schools and, in places like New York’s Harlem, have offered hope for the first time to some students who cannot afford to go to private schools.

The teachers union — my teachers union — has big problems with the charters. This is predictable. Charters do not have to be unionized although some are. Some believe that the charters are drawing needed resources from the regular public schools. In the charter law, much of the money follows the student. Frankly, I have never liked that. It seems to me that if the Legislature wants charter schools, they should find a separate pot of money to fund them. The charter backers claim that if the public schools feel threatened by the success of the charter schools, they (the regular public schools) might improve.

If the so-called “charter authorizers” do not think a charter school is performing, they shut it down. I agree with that approach although it takes some guts to do that. In New York City, School Chancellor Joel Klein has had such guts. The man means business.

The charters are allowed to contract out to both for-profit and not-for-profit educational management companies, which must report to the charter’s governing boards. The number of for-profits is actually decreasing. Most of these management companies are now not-for-profit and most of them are succeeding. Some of these management companies need as much scrutiny as we can give them.

Into all of this comes state Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) who went to fine private schools, including Collegiate and Brown University. He is on a clear witch hunt against charters, for which he has garnered the disdain of most of the city’s newspapers and a lot of people who believe that charters can save young lives. Perkins told me that charters are a return to southern-style segregation. He wants all schools to be good, not just some. That is nice talk but patent nonsense. In the old south, they segregated black and white children. The overwhelming number of kids in the charter schools are people of color. Perkins is just wrong. He has been accused of being manipulated by my union, NYSUT but it doesn’t really matter. He’s just wrong.

In some places like Ithaca, New York, there are small groups that want to start charter schools because, well, they just want to start them. They are clearly are not necessary and pose a drain on resources for no good reason. That should not be allowed. The whole idea is to improve schools that are failing. It makes no sense to establish charter schools in places where the regular public schools are doing fine.

There is a fight over lifting the legislative cap on New York charters. It makes sense to do so if a single kid’s life can be changed. If one kid ends up going to college, and not becoming addicted to drugs or ending up in jail, it’s worth it. Let the charters and the public schools compete. Let them learn from one another, but let this clearly successful initiative go forward and save lives.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/27/10

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One Comment on “If charter schools save one student, it’s worth it”

  1. Merv Roth Says:

    Anything that add competition into the equation with the UFT is a good thing for the students!

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