A contentious debate on charter schools is opening up again after the New York State Senate quickly voted on a bill to raise the cap on charter schools from 200 to 460 in hopes of winning up to $700 million in federal Race to the Top grant money that the state missed out on in the first round of the competition.
The Race to the Top program is a competition that encourages states to adopt innovative practices in education spurred by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The New York State Senate voted 45–15 on the bill that would raise the cap on charters while increasing the number of spaces for special-needs students and English learners.
There were two bills, but the other bill didn't come to a vote.
Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, told the AmNews the biggest disagreements she has with the Senate bill was that, "It continues to bar the state comptroller from auditing the use of public funds from charter schools, which is pretty outrageous considering the numerous scandals about the misuse [and] corruption with charter schools in the use of public funds."
And, she said, "It would continue to allow profit enterprises to run charter schools, which is outrageous. I don't think that people should be allowed to make profits off our kids, especially when school budgets are being stripped to the bone. It continues to prevent parents from having a voice in terms of charter school co-locations, which will continue to allow the DOE to pit parents against parents," she said.
Joe Williams, who supports the senate bill and represents two different organizations, Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now, said one of the "glaring holes we had" in the Race to the Top competition was the cap that prevented the creation of more charter schools.
"President Obama has been very clear about this being a priority," he said in a phone interview. "There were two main issues where we were weak [in the first round of the competition]
The vote was considered to have been done hastily by many opponents of charter schools and advocates for more reforms on the creation, location and transparency of charters. They say more checks and balances are needed for a fair and equal educational process for all students who often share buildings in district schools and often have issues over space allocations.
State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-District 18), who voted against the bill, told the Amsterdam News that she voted against it because the issue and discussion on charter schools was central to the education debate in the coming years and more consideration on its processes – which included central issues on allocations and the funding of charter schools – was needed.
"We should be careful about how we structure it," she said, "so that we can be assured that the charter school system becomes integrated with the larger public school system – that we don't create a separate and unequal system.
"Even though they are referred to as public schools, they have, not all of them, but some of them, and I am afraid that if we don't take certain moves, it will become more and more a part of the charter school system if they are sponsored by for-profit management and corporate organizations. So here you have a system that is growing up, expanding beside the public system that has a major influence by the corporate community," said Montgomery.
These are issues that were highlighted at State Sen. Bill Perkins' (D-District 30) hearing on charter schools on April 22.
Asked about the mounting issues against some charter schools, Williams said there was nothing that charter schools could do that would satisfy the unions and some of the opposition to charters.
"We would love it if the traditional schools could do the job, but we've seen it over the last 40 years, that there is unwillingness within the public school system to give all students the education they need and deserve. And charter schools now are sort of forcing the issue, and for a lot of students who otherwise would not be able to get a good education, charter schools give them a chance," Williams said.
The charter bill will have to be voted on in the Assembly, and Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-District 64) does not seem enthusiastic to vote on it as quickly as the senate did. Furthermore, others speculate the Assembly version will be different from the one the New York State Senate voted on, on May 3.
In news section of Edition 424 20 May 2010