McCall’s charter school stance in line with Cuomo’s

As belts get tightened in New York state government, the question of whether to continue with New York’s charter schools becomes even more controversial. Those who favor charter schools argue that too often in the state’s inner cities, children receive an inferior education. A lot of people, including a lot of the state’s conservative thinkers, have embraced charter schools as a way out of the cycle of substandard, regimented education. Many middle class parents have always avoided New York City’s public high schools for their kids with special schools like Stuyvesant, LaGuardia (Music and Art and Performing Arts), Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx High School of Science, to name a few. These were alternatives for the middle class. Among those who have the least, a few got into the special schools but for many reasons, too few were admitted.

When pro-charter George Pataki was governor of the state, he controlled the SUNY Board of Trustees. He appointed the members and they were mostly in favor of charter schools. Pataki made a deal with the Legislature stipulating that there would be not one but two main authorizers of charter schools in the state. Since he controlled the SUNY Trustees, he gave that group the right to approve new charter school applications. In the spirit of disclosure, my son Jonas was once one of the executive directors of that organization. It was not surprising that the SUNY Charter Schools Institute was in the forefront of opening up these schools. That was what Pataki wanted and that is what he got.

When Democratic governors were elected, they slowly changed the composition of the SUNY Board, but Paterson, Spitzer and Cuomo all had a pro-charter school orientation. This was one of the few times that traditional New York politics got laid aside as Democratic governors continued to support the concept of charters, despite the fact that the powerful teachers unions were not happy about charters for a list of reasons too long to go into here. It was also thought that the other major authorizing group, the New York State Department of Education, was not nearly as aggressive as the SUNY Board in authorizing charters. Some suggested that the Regents were “in bed” with the teachers unions.

The remarkable and generally wonderful outgoing Chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees, Carl Hayden, was a charter school advocate who believed that as long as traditional public schools were not being hurt by them, charters were a good idea. At the end of Hayden’s term, Carl McCall, the former UN Ambassador, state Senator and New York State Comptroller, was appointed SUNY Chair and a lot of people had the impression that McCall was not a fan of charters. The outgoing chair, Hayden, said so in a frank interview with The Legislative Gazette, but McCall said that wasn’t so. He gave all the good reasons for supporting charters including innovation that would find its way into the other, more traditional public schools. That put him in line with Andrew Cuomo, the man who appointed him. In SUNY Board meetings, McCall was on record questioning whether or not it should be SUNY’s role to authorize charters in the first place.

The big issue now is whether the state will supply charters with space. In this tough economic time, will New York build charter school buildings or give them existent space? Pro-charter advocates argue that without the state doing that, charters will be at a disadvantage as they try to turn things around. Those on the other side say that we can’t afford it. Some also argue that those wealthy people who have been giving huge amounts of money to set up and run charters will stop doing so if the state takes over. It can’t be denied that charters have already made innovations that are being copied by the traditional public schools and that badly run charters that don’t make their required “numbers” have been closed, as they should be.

So far, so good.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 11/14/11

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