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Anne Filardo, UFT Local 2

In December 1998 the New York State Legislature passed a bill creating charter schools, the specifics of which are:
  1. A maximum of 100 charter schools may be created, not counting any existing public schools that convert to charter schools.

  2. In addition to the State Board of Regents, the State University of New York may approve up to 50 charter applications, and local school boards and the New York City Schools Chancellor may recommend applications for approval.

  3. Funding provided by state and local government will follow students from their resident school district.

  4. A maximum of five teachers or 30 percent (whichever is less) in any charter school may be uncertified. However, any uncertified teachers must have at least three years of classroom experience, be tenured or be on a tenure track, have two or more years of Teach for America experience, or possess exceptional experience in business, military, art, etc.

  5. An existing public school may become a charter school with the approval of a majority of parents of students currently in the school and ofthe local school board or, in New York City, by the Chancellor.

  6. If an existing public school converts to a charter school, all employees will continue to be covered by pre-existing labor contracts.

  7. Teachers in a new charter school with more than 250 students in its first year will be represented instantly by the collective bargaining agent in that school district. The union would have to negotiate a contract for the charter schools.

  8. Up to 10 of the schools over 250 will not be automatically represented by a union.

  9. In the new charter schools with fewer than 250 students, teachers would not automatically be represented by a union, but could be organized under the Taylor Law, regulation collective bargaining.

  10. Employees in charter schools can be members of a public retirement system if the employer so chooses.

The law provides for two types of charter schools: newly created schools that come into existence with the issuance of a charter and converted public schools. Currently, 36 states and Washington, D.C. allow charter schools. Eleven of those states and D.C. allow private schools to convert to charter schools, allowing them to receive public funding. Ten percent of all charter schools were private schools prior to conversion.

But the most disturbing aspect of the push for charter schools is the growing list of Education Management Organizations (EMO). These are for-profit corporations that are going into partnership with local community groups dissatisfied with public education. Among these EMOs are Tesseract (which used to be called EAL), the Edison Project, national Heritage Academies and Advantage Schools.

The State University of New York recently approved Victory Schools' Charter for a 350-student school, far exceeding the 249-student exemption, which triggers automatic union affiliation. However, Victory Schools has requested a waiver to open without unionized staff (see 8, above).

AFT charter schools expert Joan Buckley, quoted in the 11/31/99 New York Teacher, says, "Instead of charter schools being places where teachers and parents can test out educational innovation, they're now places where people can make money." One of the ways they can make money is that charter schools are taxpayer financed but are generally free of state regulations. This allows them great flexibility in hiring and assignment of staff, euphemistically know as "differentiated staffing." At the Sisulu Children's Academy in Harlem, run by Victory Schools, the teachers work without a contract. They are mostly novices with little classroom teaching experience, but are specially trained to follow company-provided lesson plans. Classroom "aides," not paraprofessionals, are paid $10 an hour.

Some for-profit schools recruit poorly paid, part time Berlitz instructors to replace trained and licensed teachers of foreign languages. There is no need for a trained teacher of remedial reading: an Evelyn Woods speed-reading instructor will do. These policies will make the school more profitable and keep the shareholders happy.

There is a painful irony in the name of the Sisulu Academy. The school is named for Walter Sisulu, the South African opponent of apartheid, friend of Nelson Mandela and fellow leader of the African National Congress. The school is housed in a new community center owned by the Canaan Baptist Church and pays the church $16,000 a month rent. Several ministers of New York City churches, who supported the charter legislation, have said that they plan to apply to open charter schools. While, technically, the church is only Sisuiu Academy's landlord, isn't this a violation of the principle of separation of church and state?

What goes around comes around . . .

"While charter schools were originally the brainchild of the late AFT President Al Shanker, . . . many critics now worry that for-profit charters are becoming an inviting back door for privatizing schools. (New York Teacher - 2/23/00)