LETTER SPURS CHARTER SCHOOL DEBATE AMONG TRUSTEES
March 19, 2015 -- Charter schools and their impact on public school districts like North Shore became a source of spirited discussion at this past Thursday's Board of Education meeting after Trustee Toni Labbate introduced a letter addressed to state legislators and the governor that had been written by the North Shore Legislative Action Committee in concert with similar committees from the Garden City and Manhasset School Districts. She said that the Committee was requesting that the board consider signing the letter as a way of presenting a united front with the other two districts as a part of the broader effort to stop implementation of the Governor's education agenda that was announced in January.
The joint letter, with the words "Super LAC - The Joint Legislative Affairs Committee of High Achieving Long Island Public School Districts" emblazoned across the top and that had been distributed to the board and to audience members, opens "we the undersigned, as the elected representatives of our communities and in partnership with the Superintendents of our school districts, stand together to oppose governor Cuomo's 2015 Education Agenda." Specifically the letter protests proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system whereby state standardized test scores would now count 50% (rather than the current 20%) towards a teacher's overall score, and an outside evaluator's 40 minute observation would count 35%, while district measures would make up only 15%. The letter also urges the governor to restore Gap Elimination Funding - billions of dollars worth of state aid that has been cut from schools since the financial crisis that began in 2008 and that has not come close to being fully restored. Lastly, the letter expresses opposition to Mr. Cuomo's proposal to increase the number of charter schools state-wide. (see letter to the right.)
Charter schools are often run by for-profit corporations, that receive a "charter" to operate a school in any area of the state if a particular educational need can be demonstrated. The charter school does not have to be located within a child's own school district for him or her to attend, but the cost of tuition is paid by the child's home district, thus transferring tax payer dollars from the school district to the for-profit school. Currently, according to law, the state can issue 460 charters. That number would be expanded to 560 under the governor's proposal.
When Trustee Toni Labbate, who in her position as Board Vice President has been a regular at LAC meetings, began the discussion of the letter Thursday night, Trustee Michael Nightingale, the board liaison to the committee, questioned whether LAC had followed proper procedures in mentioning Charter schools in the letter, since the school board had never given direction to the committee to address that issue when it had discussed topics for LAC to pursue at a meeting this fall.
Trustee Labbate responded that charter schools were not an issue until the Governor had raised it this past January when he proposed his education agenda. LAC began its discussions of those proposals about a week later at its late January meeting, and then agreed to pen a letter when it met in February. Mr. Nightingale did not attend either meeting.
The letter went through a few revisions as it was circulated among committee members. It was then introduced and discussed at the February 26 meeting, at which the school board unanimously agreed to be a signatory and directed the committee to move forward with the letter. Trustee Nightingale was not in attendance at that meeting. Early this month, members of LAC met with members of similar committees from Manhasset and Garden City and put together a joint letter, almost identical to the North Shore letter.
After Trustee Nightingale's initial objection over the inclusion of the Charter School issue in the letter, Trustee Marianne Russo stated that she didn't know that the letter the board agreed to the previous week was being signed by the board, but thought it was being distributed to the community for individuals to sign if they chose to.
She said that she had mixed feelings on charter schools. "I understand it's taking resources away from public schools and its hard to compare the performance of charter schools and public schools because charter schools do not have the same population as public schools," she explained. However, while she said she understood why this district would be opposed to charter schools, she sympathized with parents in New York City and low income districts where parents see charters as the "only viable alternative." "It's arrogant for me who can afford an alternative school for my child to tell a parent that they can't have that alternative for their children."
Dr. Melnick replied that, with regard to process and procedure, the paragraph concerning charter schools was included in the letter that the board had approved at its last meeting, and that LAC was instructed to move forward with it.
He said that the letter was not requesting that there be no charter schools, but that they "be held to the same accountability measures as public schools" and that they "not siphon off funds from public schools" - rather, the state ought to fund them.
The superintendent explained that many public school leaders are concerned that with BOCES likely to close the Long Island High School for the Arts and the Doshi STEM school, privately run entities will seek charters to fill the vacuum. "Even if North Shore offers the same programs, we will be required to pay the tuition for those students" whose parents choose to send them to the charter school, he said.
"What's the downside?" Trustee Nightingale asked.
"You're paying for it," replied Dr. Melnick.
"I believe the competition spurs a better product," Mr. Nightingale answered. Later he said, "If the charter school is offering better arts, then they should be able to send their child to the charter school and in essence they are going to get a better education. . . . It's just like the car industry - a better product leads to a better product." In response to comments from Dr. Berliner and Dr. Melnick, he added, "It's a straight marketing concept - competition spurs a better product - the more choices, the better. . . . You have to step up your game to make your school better to keep your students here."
Board President Herman Berliner asserted that "the problem with the better product is that there is no accountability for charter schools. If it was the same level of accountability, we would have a way of determining whether it was a better product or not a better product. . . . Charter Schools are held to very lax standards. It's a very uneven playing field - you can't even determine what the quality is."
Dr. Melnick made similar arguments. He said that "when you begin to talk about a for-profit corporation competing with a public school that doesn't have the same opportunities in the market place, that a for-profit corporation has, then you run into all kinds of issues." He cited Valley Stream School District 13, which he said had four students who chose to go to the charter high school in Hempstead, and as a result lost two reading teachers who had been there "for the benefit of all the other kids in that district."
Addressing Trustee Nightingale, Trustee Labbate said, "so you say four or five kids will get a better arts education, so that we will have to reduce the teachers in our district that service 3,000 students?"
"No - you make a better arts education, so students will want to stay here." said Trustee Nightingale.
"It's not a level playing field," replied Dr. Berliner.
"Your'e applying a business model to public education," said Trustee Labbate.
"But the other school is not a public school," replied Trustee Nightingale.
"A charter school is a public school," said Trustee Labatte.
"If the charter school is the better school, you shouldn't send your children?" Trustee Nightingale asked.
Dr. Melnick stated that he believed that if the public school is offering a quality education, you should not have the right to send your child to a charter school at the cost to all the other taxpayers in the district.
"I believe in choice. The governor is offering choice." Trustee Nightingale asserted.
"At your expense? Let him pay for it then," replied the Superintendent.
"And hold them to the same standards," added Dr. Berliner. "It's apples and oranges in terms of the comparison."
"You're not dealing with the same student population either," said Trustee Russo.
"Charter Schools should be another option. Whether it works, I don't know," said Trustee Nightingale.
"What we're saying in the letter is not that there shouldn't be charter schools," explained Trustee Labbate. "What we're saying is that there should not be a substantial increase in the number of privately operated charter schools without counter-balancing that with having specific criteria and being held to the same accountability measures. What we're trying to prevent is in a district like ours or Garden City, or Manhasset that charter schools don't pop up and siphon funds from our public schools. We're already fighting underneath this tax cap. We're already fighting underneath unfunded mandates. This is going to be another cost to our schools that's going to take money away from the general population that goes there."
Trustee Sara Jones said, "we have a lot of other taxpayers who don't have children in the district and I do not believe they want their tax dollars sent to a privately run charter school in another community. I think they want to spend tax dollars to build our community. They want to support the schools we've spent decades building."
Dr. Berliner asked if there was consensus among the the Board to sign the letter from Super LAC. The Trustees agreed unanimously to do so.
As for LAC's letter written on behalf of the North Shore community, Dr. Melnick stated on Thursday night that the leaders of several student, parent and teacher organizations have said that they will sign the letter. Those that have done so include the North Shore High School Student Government Organization, The Sea Cliff School PTO, the North Shore Middle School PTO, The Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA), The North Shore teachers union, and the Administrators union. Declining to do so were the presidents of the High School PTO, the Glenwood Landing PTO, the Glen Head School PTO and the North Shore Coordinating Council.
Trustee Labatte said at the start of the discussion, that the Legislative Action Committee will provide packets to all parent groups within the district that will include information regarding the issues and sample letter templates, that can be passed on to the membership, so that parents will also be able to contact legislators directly, if they choose to do so.
The Super LAC letter signed by North Shore, Manhasset, and Garden City School Boards can be found to the right.
(The author of the article, Tim Madden, is a member of the Legislative Action Committee)
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