Friday, May 21, 2010

City and teachers union nearly reach deal on charter schools, only for it to fall apart later on

BY Kenneth Lovett and Meredith Kolodner

Friday, May 21st 2010, 4:00 AM
The city and the teachers union reached a deal in principle on raising the charter school cap early Thursday - only to have it fall apart hours later, the Daily News has learned.

Sources said the two sides came close to sweetening their application for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds, but got tangled up at the last minute on three key points:

* How charters and traditional public schools would share the same building.
* Whether for-profit groups would be allowed to run charter schools.
* Whether a large number of charters could be clustered in one neighborhood.

The harsh reality of economic hardship has both sides pressing for a deal ahead of the June 1 deadline for Race to the Top cash.

The city is staring at a $3.5 billion budget shortfall, and the teachers union could see 6,400 of its members laid off. "There's too much at stake with the fiscal crisis and too much money on the table to walk away," the source added.

The two sides did make significant progress.

They agreed to raise the cap on charter schools from 200 to 460.

And they consented to have the state controller - not the city controller - be tasked with auditing charter schools.

Negotiators also made a pact making it harder for charter schools to bar more difficult students - ensuring their student body reflects the neighborhood they serve.

That's a key point for the teachers union - it means charter schools would have to take more special education students, more students struggling to learn English and more poor kids who qualify for free lunches.

A deal between the city and the union likely would sway balky Assembly Democrats to approve raising the cap.

The Senate voted two weeks ago to increase the number of charter schools - a prime criterion for the federal cash.

Negotiators met at the United Federation of Teachers' lower Manhattan headquarters yesterday, focused on hammering out details on how some charter schools would co-exist in the same building as a public school, the sources said.

The sides were still arguing over whether any improvements to the charter school spaces, such as fresh paint, also would have be made to the public school in the building.

The union was also trying to persuade the city to stay neutral while it lobbies the Legislature to bar for-profit organizations from operating charter schools.

City officials, meanwhile, bristled at the union's demand to limit the number of charter schools in each district.

They contend such a restriction would block the expansion of charters in a neighborhood like Harlem, which currently has about 20% of elementary school students in charter schools.

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