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Karen Magee: Fix The Charter School Mess

As a concept, charter schools once held promise.

In theory, educators would receive a “charter.”  That charter would allow them to operate a school free from some regulatory constraints.  With this new freedom and independence, educators would have leeway to experiment and innovate — to find new ways to help students learn.

Let’s fast forward 20 years.

New York’s charter school law is a disaster on many fronts.

Charters, by and large, are failing to serve all students equally.  To prop up their test scores, charters are not enrolling students with special needs or English language learners at rates that are comparable to neighborhood schools.

They are not transparent or accountable for their operations.  After all, despite receiving nearly $2 Billion a year in taxpayers’ money, when is the last time anyone voted on a charter school budget or voted for a charter school board member?

That’s a trick question.

The answer would be, “Never.”

Unlike other public schools, charters get to appoint their board members and don’t put their budgets up for a public vote.

They operate in your backyard; get your school tax dollars, but you have no say in how they spend public money. 

To make matters worse, the loosely regulated charter school industry is sucking money from every school district — and every taxpayer — in the state.

You heard that right.  While charter schools are concentrated in just a handful of communities — Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany upstate, and New York City and parts of Long Island downstate — every single one of us  pays for charter schools.

Funding that could be going to your local school — or being used to lower your property taxes — is instead supporting charters, most of which are doing no better  than the regular public schools in those communities.

And, now, state Senate Republicans are attempting a giant giveaway to charters.

They want to enrich the billionaires who are supporting corporate charters and who, maybe not coincidently, also poured millions of dollars into their election campaigns.

The Senate’s one-house budget bill under consideration in Albany would divert — by some estimates — $350 million or more away from our already under-funded schools to charters.

The Senate wants to increase the per-pupil tuition that charter schools get, so that they get even more per student than your neighborhood schools.

They want additional state money to cover more of their payroll costs — and more money to pay rent on school buildings, even though many are already rolling in dough.

It’s an easy vote for many State Senate Republicans.

After all, they DON’T have any charter schools in their districts and, therefore, their constituents aren’t being directly hurt.

Make no mistake:  There is a cost.  Every dollar that goes to a charter school is a dollar that can’t be used to help regular public schools that serve the vast, vast majority of students.

NYSUT is blowing the whistle on charters — and on the Senate Republicans who are supporting them.

We believe that if charters are going to receive public money, charter management should be accountable and transparent about how that money is spent.

We believe charter management should serve all students equally … and not turn away children with special needs or those who are still learning English.

And, we believe that charters shouldn’t be siphoning already scarce state money from our already under-funded neighborhood public schools.

It’s about time to reflect back on the promise of charter schools.

Right now, that promise is broken … and Albany has got to fix it.

Karen E. Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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