Unions: Charter management must be transparent, accountable

By Cara Metz

UFT, NYSUT among those who weigh in at all-day hearing

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UFT President Michael Mulgrew testified that charter school management needs to be as rigorously accountable as district public schools.

.At an April 22 state legislative hearing in lower Manhattan to examine the business practices and record of the charter school industry in New York, UFT President Michael Mulgrew testified that charter schools, like other public schools which take public money, need to be transparent and accountable.

“I don’t want to paint charter schools with too broad a brush — there are many wonderful charter schools,” said Mulgrew in response to questions. “But I don’t think that 10 years ago when the charter law was passed, anyone would have predicted companies would be running in to make a buck off students. In today’s rough economic times, every dollar should be for the classroom.”

In response to a harsh grilling and negative insinuations from charter school management supporter Sen. Craig Johnson, D-L.I., Mulgrew asked Johnson how much money he had accepted from the charter industry. Johnson’s response, “I don’t know,” prompted Mulgrew to answer, “I do — $65,000!”

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State Sen. Bill Perkins holds up that day’s Daily News article which outlines nepotism and conflicts of interest at charter schools throughout the city.

The daylong hearing, which was called by state Sen. Bill Perkins, who has been vilified by the New York Post for being critical of charter schools, occurred on the same day that the Daily News ran stories about nepotism and conflicts of interest at several charter schools throughout the city.

“Private corporations unleashed from public scrutiny” are responsible for “hidden and questionable practices,” Perkins said, who served on the board of one of the city’s first charter schools and is currently a mentor at another charter school in Albany.

Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of NYSUT, the UFT’s state affiliate, called for greater financial accountability for charter schools.

“The lack of strong oversight has resulted in misallocation of funds, ethical lapses, no-bid contracts, conflicts of interest and profiteering at student and public expense,” said Pallotta, a former UFT district representative in the Bronx. [See Pallotta’s testimony, of state edition of the New York Teacher.]

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Charter parent Mona Davids said that “99.9 percent of charter parents don’t know what the avenues are if there are problems at their school.”

Nearly nine hours later, during the public portion of the hearing, Robin Hemmings, a former teacher at Merrick Academy, a charter school in Queens Village that the UFT has organized, objected to the $1.4 million in management fees that Merrick pays to its for-profit management company, Victory Schools, which amounts to $2,695 per child, “the highest in the city,” she said.

“Merrick would be able to have more working computers in the classroom or maybe even a free after-school enrichment program,” if not for the high fees, said Hemmings, who said Merrick’s administrators eliminated her position in response to her support for the UFT.

The UFT is in a battle with Merrick management to get a first contract for its members at the school.

Mulgrew also testified that charter schools are not educating their fair share of special needs and English language learners.

In her testimony, education historian Diane Ravitch described how charters were originally envisioned to serve “students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out.”

That original mission, which “would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them,” has been lost, she said.

Ravitch pointed out that charter schools now enroll 3 percent of public school students in New York City and nationwide. “Who champions the other 97 percent?” she asked.

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Diane Ravitch, education historian, called for a more nuanced perspective. “We have to abandon the naive belief that charters are a panacea for education,” she said.

Among the complaints of charter school parents testifying at the hearing: students with behavioral or learning disabilities being counseled out, schools refusing to test students for special needs, and lack of information about student and parent rights.

“In the charter system, there is no one to fight for you,” said Mona Davids, president of the New York Charter Parents Association. “If you are the parent of a special needs student or if you have any issue, good luck getting help.”

Mulgrew stressed that the union was not anti-charter and advocated fair funding and treatment for all schools, district and charter alike.

In addition to the union’s own charter schools, the UFT represents members in another 10 charter schools.

“We feel that a school is stronger when teachers and parents have a voice inside it,” Mulgrew said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Teacher on May 6, 2010, visit UFT.org, for the original article.