State Senate introduces new bill to double cap on charter schools

The legislative battle over whether and how to raise the state’s cap on charter schools could begin again as early as next week.

The State Senate’s Rules Committee, which is chaired by Senator Malcolm Smith, introduced a bill today that would lift the charter school cap to 460, more than doubling the number currently allowed under state law.  It also would require schools to make more of their financial practices public and increase the number of special education and English language learners they serve.

Charter school advocates are hailing the bill as a compromise between supporters of the speedy growth of charter schools and critics who argue that a cap lift should come only with changes to how the schools are run. But perhaps the most vocal skeptics of charter management practices, the teachers unions, are crying foul. Union officials are complaining that the bill was developed without union leaders’ input and that its regulatory provisions are too weak.

The bill would require the schools to give admissions preference to special education students and those learning English and to demonstrate their efforts to attract those students as a condition of receiving or renewing a charter. It would also allow a single board of trustees to operate charter schools on multiple sites, and allow schools to band together to provide special education services. Often, charter school administrators argue that their schools are too small to adequately provide extra services to needy students.

The legislation would also mandate that charter school trustees disclose potential conflicts of interest and set public practices for advertising and running the schools’ board meetings.

The bill does not allow the state controller to audit charter school finances or ban for-profit companies from running schools, two changes that charter school critics frequently insist is necessary to prevent mismanagement and fraud.

The head of the pro-charter advocacy group Education Reform Now, Joe Williams, said that the new proposal would put New York in a strong position to win in the second round of the federal government’s Race to the Top competition, which favors states with high caps.

“At the same time, the legislation addresses concerns around transparency, accountability and the need to service students with disabilities and English language learners,” Williams said. “We believe that it does so without going so far as to undermine New York’s outstanding charter law.”

The city teachers union countered that the bill’s measures to improve oversight are too weak. “The proposal falls far short of real reform, particularly since it lets profiteers continue to make money off our kids,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.

And officials from the state teachers union, gathered in Washington, D.C. for an annual convention this weekend, accused Senate Democratic leadership of overriding their members’ concerns about charter schools.

“I think this is full of baloney,” said Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers. Pallotta decried Senate leadership for developing the bill without consulting the union.

When union officials heard about the bill’s introduction this afternoon, they asked the several thousand delegates gathered at the conference to immediately contact their state senators. “Just about everyone I spoke to said their local senator had never heard of the thing,” Pallotta said. Union officials are threatening to withhold endorsements from any legislator who supports the bill.

Charter school supporters and skeptics will now be paying close attention to the reaction the Senate bill receives in the Assembly, particularly from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Charter school advocates fiercely opposed the last charter school cap lift bill that was promoted by Senate and Assembly Democratic leadership and supported by the unions before the first Race to the Top deadline in January. That bill tied a cap lift to changes to the way charter schools are opened and managed that the bill’s supporters said would increase state oversight of the schools but that charter advocates argued would kill the schools. In the end, the disagreement stymied the passage of any form of cap lift.

In January, the proposed legislation to lift the charter cap emerged less than a week before the deadline for the state’s Race to the Top grant application, prompting a panicked scramble to debate and vote on the law. Today’s bid to raise the cap comes a month before the grant competition’s June 1 second-round application cutoff date.

Here’s the full text of the bill:

Source: Maura Walz