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Class War: Teachers Turn Sharply Against Charters

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Class War

Teachers turn sharply against charter schools as politicians try to grant them sweeping new powers. Over the 4th of July weekend, the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher union, held its annual Representative Assembly, where some 1,700 members gathered to toughen the NEA’s official position on charter schools. At the same time, New York State policymakers were quietly advancing bold new policies to free charter schools from teacher certification requirements.

Unions Unite Against Charters

The NEA assembly in Boston began with a fiery speech from NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia marking Donald Trump’s untrustworthiness by the appointment of Betsy DeVos, a US Education Secretary who “has made a career trying to destroy neighborhood public schools.”

“I do not believe their alternative facts. I see no reason to assume they will do what is best for our students and their families. There will be no photo-op,” Eskelson-Garcia added.

Next, the NEA released an official statement, calling the 25-year history of charter schools a “failed experiment” which has only compounded the problems of segregation and inequity in education. They called for basic monitoring for transparency and civil rights compliance and a ban on all for-profit operations and financial conflicts. Perhaps the biggest change was the call to place charter schools under the supervision of the same democratically elected school boards as public schools.

The statement was the product of a year-long, multi-state NEA task force who also recommended that teachers in charter schools be allowed to organize for collective bargaining. They stopped short of calling for a national moratorium on new charter schools, however they did say charter schools must change to address the unmet needs in a district rather than compete for resources.

Hearing this, the NEA teachers in attendance wanted the union to go even farther. Member items were introduced seeking an all-out moratorium on new charter schools. They eventually passed  “New Business Item” number 47 committing to help local school boards and parent groups pass moratoriums on charter schools in their area.

Charters Strike Back

Meanwhile, concluding a special legislative session in Albany, Senate Republicans – who took in over $3M this year from charter school supporters – passed Senate Bill (SB) S6965 looking to give new powers to charter schools to hire uncertified teachers and let the charter industry train and certify them instead of accredited teaching colleges such as those within the State University of New York (SUNY).

The “backroom” bill also included new tax credits for private religious schools and passed in the NY State Senate only because of support from the IDC, the rogue Independent Democratic Conference (recently branded “Trump’s NY Democrats”) whose eight members received $677K this year from pro-charter PACs. During tense budget battles last month, the GOP/IDC coalition delivered for their donors, expanding per-pupil funding for charters while the most needy public school districts were denied the basic court-ordered minimums the IDC specifically promised them in January.

Though GOP and IDC Senators don’t have charter schools in their own districts, they want more to open in NYC. Charter schools now occupy virtually all of New Orleans and large percentages of Detroit, Chicago, Philly, Los Angeles, DC, and Flint – but NYC has remained an elusive prize. It was Speaker Carl Heastie and the Democratic supermajority in the NY State Assembly who held the line, preventing the statewide cap on charter schools from being lifted and stopping the “uncertified teacher” legislation.

But then, it re-emerged.

SUNY Insurgents

New York teachers found out over the holiday that SUNY’s Charter School Committee scheduled a vote to allow non-certified teachers at 167 SUNY-authorized charter schools (which includes the DeVos-friendly Success Academy network). Amazingly, New York’s highly regarded public college system is proposing an alternative to it’s own teacher certification program, allowing charter teachers to skip the Master’s degree in Education all classroom teachers currently must have. Instead, candidates would get about 30 hours of classroom training with outcomes measured by…you guessed it, test scores.

Bleeding Teachers

This certification waiver is exactly what charter schools need to fill the incredible shortages created as 41% of charter teachers citywide leave their schools each year, compared to 18% in public schools. The “churn and burn” of high teacher turnover in charters was recently spotlighted by NY Daily News editorial writer Alyssa Katz who removed her daughter from her local charter school. So the charter model of running teachers ragged to boost test scores was already unsustainable, resulting in violations of current law, but with 40% less teachers projected to enter teaching programs in coming years, the situation is quickly worsening.

Dramatic video captures public education defenders from NYC reminding the SUNY trustees that moving ahead on this proposal was a top-down decision that mostly affects lower income black and brown children, but no parents or students were invited, nor were the unions, the press, or elected officials. The SUNY vote was convened during a holiday weekend with only three days notice (full video here).

Speaking Up

Maria Bautista, with Alliance for Quality Education, and NYC teacher, Aixa Rodriguez, rushed to the scene, noting the hypocrisy and inequality as children of color are already less likely to have highly qualified teachers. There was also pushback online, including elected officials, as a panel of all white, affluent appointees moved forward without answering questions of institutional racism – or the most basic question of all – would you want this for your own child?

“The proposal undermines our belief in the professionalism of teaching and most importantly, threatens the quality of teaching for black, brown and poor children across the state,” Bautista said.

Rodriguez noted the silence from the critics who erupted in April when one literacy exam was eliminated from traditional certification requirements.

Instant Backlash

Upon hearing the news, reaction was swift and negative – the State Education Commissioner and the Chancellor of the State Board of Regents both called the proposal “cause for concern.” The state teachers union NYSUT lambasted the last-minute “backdoor” plan, as did Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the nation’s second largest teacher union. United University Professions, representing 42,000 SUNY faculty called the proposal “gibberish for lower standards.”

The Who

The next question is who convinced this panel to have such a controversial vote so quietly without stakeholders present? Although the 45 day period to comment on the proposal has already begun, the official website has no instructions, links or forms to submit comments, so New Yorkers must use the general email address, charters@suny.edu, call (518) 445-4250 or write SUNY Charter Schools Institute, 41 State Street, 7th Floor, Albany, NY 10227.

Tell SUNY – should charter school administrators have special powers to hire and certify teachers without an education degree?

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