NYC charter schools challenged by union and mayor

The president of the New York City’s public school teachers’ union recently issued a challenge to the city’s charter schools.

If they are really interested in playing a meaningful role in public education, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a January 14 article in the New York Daily News, charter school operators need to

  • Be willing to serve the city’s neediest children
  • Open their books to public scrutiny
  • Be good neighbors and
  • Stop treating children as profit centers

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education announced that it would divert $210 million budgeted for charter school construction. The money will be used  to ease school overcrowding and to help fund Mayor de Blasio’s planned expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program.

The shortcomings of the New York City charter schools that drew Mulgrew’s challenge are amplified in a recent report released by UFT, entitled “Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report.”

Charter schools educate 6 percent of New York City’s public school students and charge the city $13,500 a year to do so.

The report finds that while charter schools characterize themselves as non-profit organizations, they generate generous incomes for their top executives and charge high management fees.

Six of the most prominent charter chains– Achievement First, Success Charter Network, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Village Academies Network, and Ichan Charters–pay their top executives an average annual salary of $354,500. The highest paid of these six works for Village Academies Network and makes nearly one-half million dollars a year. The next highest paid works for Success Charter Network and makes $475,000 a year.

Theses two salaries and the one paid to KIPP charter schools, ($395,000 a year) are more than the mayor’s or New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s, and the executives only oversee a small number of schools.

These same charter chains charged the New York City School District more than $12 million in management fees, 15 percent of the funding they received from the city during the 2011-2012 school year.

The charters claim that they operate on a narrow margin, but the report shows that the six charter chains mentioned above have assets totaling more than $65 million.

How they spend their money isn’t clear because unlike public schools charters are not subject to independent audits. In fact, charter supporters have gone to court to prevent independent audits by New York State Comptroller.

Charters have also been reluctant to throw their doors open to all as public schools must do. In fact, the UFT report presents some evidence suggesting that charters cherry pick students most likely to succeed.

According to the report, “tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.”

Despite the screening process, charter students didn’t do any better on recent standardized tests than public school students.

“In reading, charter schools as a whole scored under the citywide average,” reports the UFT.

Charters are required to serve children with special needs and those who don’t speak English as a first language, but many ignore this requirement, said Mulgrew.

“Parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been ‘counseled out’ of charters, (and) most of them (end) up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores,” he said.

Mulgrew also said that charters need to learn to be better neighbors. Most of charters co-locate at public schools but go to great lengths to keep their students from having contact with public school students in the same building.

As a result of these and other problems, Mayor de Blasio while he was campaigning for office said that he would not follow former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of preferential treatment for charter schools.

In addition to diverting money that Mayor Bloomberg had earmarked for charter school construction, de Blasio said that he would discontinue the policy of allowing charters to co-locate at public schools.

Forty-two new charters are scheduled to begin co-location in September. Those new co-locations are on hold while being reviewed by the city’s education department. No new co-locations will be approved.

The charters pay no rent for using public school space, which de Blasio said during his campaign, added “insult to injury” to public school students, teachers, and the public.

The free rent adds about $650 per child in extra public funding that charters receive from the city.

More recently, he said that the co-location process was “a broken one that didn’t consult with parents and communities effectively.”

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