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Andrew Pallotta: Questions About New York Charter Schools

Most New Yorkers just aren’t that familiar with charter schools.

That’s understandable.

Of the 38 state Senate districts outside the New York City metro area, just five have three or more charters.  Most Senate districts have none, as in zero.  

That fact helps to explain why most New Yorkers don’t know, for example, that charter operators get public money from school districts to run their own schools.  It’s money that could be used to lower property taxes or, better yet, educate children in their own public schools.

They don’t know that despite receiving $2 billion annually in public money… charter operators don’t have to tell voters how they are spending public money, or allow voters – you and I -- to have a say in who serves on charter school boards.

Some New Yorkers may know that the charter industry comes to Albany seeking additional public funding … but they don’t know that charters have $400 million in cash stockpiled in their bank accounts.

They don’t know that many charters are testing factories … and too many have signed sweetheart leases that help them profit on the backs of students and taxpayers.

And, they don’t know that despite being classified as public schools, charter operators can – and do – turn away students.  It is well-documented that charters operators fail to accept their share of students with special needs, or those who are English language learners.

What I’m finding is that the more New Yorkers learn about the charter school industry, the more questions they have.

They ask why.

Why, as in … Why do Republican state senators upstate and on Long Island support sending tens of millions of dollars in new funding to New York City charters … instead of reserving that money for their own schools in places like Troy, Poughkeepsie and Plattsburgh?

It's not as if schools in these districts – or any of these senators’ home districts -- couldn't use additional funds. 

If divided among the Senate Republicans’ districts, the $92 million in new funding for charters approved this year could mean dozens of new teachers to lower class sizes in local schools.

It could mean more sports and after-school programs.

It could mean more art and music, guidance and health services … and better career training in areas that have lost manufacturing jobs.

Why – people may ask – are upstate Senate Republicans so devoted to the charter schools outside their districts? 

Maybe it has something to do with the huge sums that pro-charter billionaires have lavished on charter cheerleader operations and on Republican office-holders.

In the last five years, a group of charter-friendly billionaires and hedge fund operators have poured nearly $13 million in campaign contributions into outfits with names like “New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany” and “New Yorkers for Putting Students First.”

They function as lobbying forces for the charter industry. 

And, when they are successful, that means less money for your own local schools.

Thanks to changes in federal and state election laws, billionaires can legally use their vast fortunes to magnify their voices on any issue they decide to embrace.

But residents like you and I in upstate school districts – in a chorus with New Yorkers from throughout the state -- should be reminding their senators:

They don’t have to listen to those billionaires.

They can tell their local senators: Don’t short-change our local schools to help unaccountable charter operators. 

If enough of us do that, upstate senators might actually pay attention. 

Andy Pallotta is president of the 600,000-plus 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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