Charter Schools, School Choice, Poverty and the Future of Schools

The following is an excerpt from the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform. Buy it on Amazon click here.

I was two years into my position as superintendent of schools for the City School District of Albany in April 1999 when I read a blurb in the local newspaper about plans to establish New York’s first charter school – in our district.

It was the first time I’d heard about it. Since my arrival, we’d been busy plugging up financial holes (more than $20 million) in our leaky ship, restructuring academics, identifying the worst performers on the district’s shaky administrative team, negotiating with our teachers union and our civil service union and trying to coalesce a solid majority of our school board around some guiding principles.

My inherited business official, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the superintendent position, told my newly hired Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction: “Welcome to the sinking ship.” He bailed on the sinking ship shortly thereafter.

Now, just when I thought we were coming out of a storm, the state’s first charter school was on its way.

At least we would have a year to plan, or so I thought.

According to the law that established charter schools in New York State, charter schools were to be treated like a private schools when it comes to making requests for transportation, textbooks and school nursing services, all items public schools typically provide to private schools without reimbursement.

The deadline for making those requests is April 1st. The April 1st deadline had been in place for many, many years and survived multiple challenges from private schools wanting to make last minute changes and additions to services and supports – transportation, nursing services, textbooks – they routinely received from their public school district. (Not to confuse the issue but the whole system of reimbursement has created a boatload of administrative work even without charters. Students who attend Albany Academy private school, for example, receive services from the City School District of Albany, which then turns around and bills each and every home school district for services for students attending the private school.)

Time and time again, the April 1st deadline was upheld by the education commissioner in order to ensure the public school district had ample time to plan their budgets, budgets that were approved (or not) by the public in May of each year.

So, imagine my surprise when on June 15, 1999, the SUNY Charter School Institute approved the New Covenant Charter School to open September 1, 1999! (Original charter school law has since been amended. Charter school applications are supposed to be approved in June for opening in September of the following year. )

Maybe even more shocking than the start date was that news of the new school came without anyone from the SUNY Charter School Institute contacting anyone in our school district to find out what impact this approval would have on the 10,000-plus students who would remain in our public schools.

Our district had only two-and-a-half months to prepare for this new charter school. On top of that we had to find a way to pay $3.2 million in tuition payments – $8,000 for each student.

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We had no provisions in the school district budget for sending the charter school $3.2 million or busing 400-plus students to a new and as yet unknown school site.

The school nursing services for our district had already been established as had remedial services and textbook purchases. All of this would need to be unraveled and reorganized in a nightmare of last minute changes. And worst of all the 400-plus students the charter school would serve had not yet been identified or recruited.

We didn’t receive the wildly inaccurate list of 423 New Covenant Charter School students until August 25, 1999, one week before school started. Little did I know, at the time, this was the tip of the iceberg that was about to rip a huge new hole in the hull of our barely floating public school district ship.

A “market” theory of education

Charter schools are an idea that emerged in the United States in the early 1990s. The principles behind their growth developed from a “market” theory of education. The public schools are a monopoly. They need competition. With competition, especially in the urban areas where standardized test scores show dismal student academic performance, the public schools will be forced to compete and improve or they will lose students and dollars to higher performing charter schools. This theory hasn’t played out well.

Charter schools arrived on the scene with support from conservatives who hated the powerful and selfish teacher unions and the bloated administrative bureaucracy of urban schools and from many urban liberals and leaders in the African American and Hispanic communities who were ready to try anything to improve failing urban schools.

Charter schools were given freedom from state regulations and union contracts for teachers and administrators to create entrepreneurial educational ventures designed to put staid, failing urban public schools to shame.

They were also afforded longer school days and longer school years and organized around themes or instructional approaches.

Charter schools and the market principles they are designed to epitomize are reasonable ideas, but like many reasonable ideas in the social science/political/economic arena, charter schools, especially as they were implemented in New York State, had unintended, catastrophic consequences.

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Unintended consequence No. 1: charter schools discriminated against students with academic, behavioral and special education challenges and – in my opinion and according to recent news reports – still do. As a result, the most challenging students are boomeranged back to the regular public schools in what becomes a constant revolving door disrupting education for all.

Over time, our remaining students in Albany included an overwhelming percentage of students with academic, behavioral and special education challenges. And that was reflected in the test scores.

Unfortunately, unlike the most challenging students, the tuition payments sent to the charter school did not boomerang back.

While there are some, select charter schools with strong leadership and exemplary programs and some cities with comprehensive charter school systems and programs (i.e. the KIPP network, schools in New Orleans and with some important exceptions in Newark, DC and NYC) that contradict this trend, many do not. Overall there has been no magical urban student achievement growth resulting from charter schools and the unintended consequences of charter schools have created serious issues for the public school districts they were supposed to improve.

And there’s been very little measurable academic growth at most charter schools or at least a very mixed bag of academic growth for urban students as a whole in the U.S. due to the initiation of charter schools.

Enter Scott Steffey and Aaron Dare

Within hours of the announcement that the SUNY Charter School Institute had approved New Covenant Charter School for a September 1999 start I was on the phone with anyone who would return my calls: the state’s governor, education commissioner, comptroller, the school district attorney, etc., explaining the impossibility of this school’s arrival on the approved timetable.

My conversations were usually brief and concluded when I was basically told to, “Suck it up and make it happen.” Why? “Because Republican Governor George Pataki engineered the charter school approval process as a concession from the state legislators who received a pay raise in return and they are not going to change it now.”

One conversation stands out in my mind. It was with Scott Steffey who was, according to articles in the local newspaper, the Chairman of the SUNY Charter School Institute that had approved the New Covenant Charter School and the timetable for its initiation.

When I explained to Mr. Steffey the impossibility of finding $3.2 million in our already approved and very tight budget and effectively completing all the last minute busing and other changes the new charter school would require he responded, “If it hurts you, that’s even better.”

The state legislators who voted in favor of the charter schools in order to receive pay raises were not aware of Scott Steffey’s attitude toward our district or the 10,000-plus students we worked hard to serve every day. I’m certain the legislators were thinking of a more gentlemanly type of competition where we all did our best to serve the students in our schools without, by design, hurting students, parents, taxpayers and employees.

Unfortunately, the system they designed with rogue charter schools that required no approval from local taxpayers or the local school boards, and a funding formula that sent significantly more money to the charter schools than any savings strategy could create, produced significant fallout for the system as a whole.

By the way, Mr. Steffey’s impolitic approach with me and others reflected badly on his politician friends who wanted to make this transition as smooth as possible and soon cost him job. He was replaced by a soft spoken representative who did a much better job of hiding the uglier motivations behind the charter school movement.

Buy the book on Amazon click here.

Author Lonnie Palmer
In 1970, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and planned to continue on to a Ph.D. program but was interrupted by a notice from the U.S. Government – a draft notice. Knowing his low number would preempt plans to continue his education, Palmer took a temporary position teaching high school science — and a reluctant education reformer was born. Read more.