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Top city Democrat endorses charter cap lift, but cautiously

Stuck between two party bosses and a union that boosted him, the city’s public advocate has made a best-of-both-worlds choice on the Race to the Top.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio endorsed raising the state cap on charter schools today, but he stopped short of arguing the cap should be eliminated altogether, as Governor David Paterson has done and the Obama administration has encouraged. De Blasio also amended his endorsement with a list of tweaks he’d like to see in charter school law, including many that resemble recommendations the union made last week.

Like many other local politicians who favor raising the cap, de Blasio gave no other reason for his support other than that raising the cap will boost the state’s Race to the Top application. “I strongly support raising the cap on charter schools and giving New York State the best possible opportunity to compete for much needed federal education funding,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio’s letter, which was co-signed by a majority of City Council members, did not specify how high he wants the cap lifted.

The governor has charged state lawmakers with passing a bill to raise or eliminate the cap on charter schools before next Tuesday’s Race to the Top application deadline. It’s still unclear whether the legislature will make that deadline, though legislators spent yesterday conferencing on the issue.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has kept quiet about his support for the cap lift. Yesterday he told reporters that the Assembly was “trying to put together a proposal that will make New York eligible for money,” his most elaborate comment on the issue to date.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly supports lifting the cap. Most top city Democrats, including Comptroller John Liu, have been cooler to charter schools.

Here’s the full text of de Blasio’s statement and accompanying letter:

STATEMENT FROM PUBLIC ADVOCATE BILL DE BLASIO ON EXPANDING CHARTER SCHOOL SYSTEM I strongly support raising the cap on charter schools and giving New York State the best possible opportunity to compete for much needed federal education funding. I have submitted the following letter to Governor Paterson and the State Legislature asking them to adopt new measures that build upon the successes in our charter school system by increasing efficiency, transparency, and accessibility. The proposed measures, which are endorsed by a majority of the members of the City Council, are designed to help make our expanding charter school system more equitable to all New Yorkers. January 13, 2010 Dear Governor Paterson, Members of the Senate, and Members of the Assembly: The Federal Race to the Top funding presents the City and State with a unique opportunity to examine the legacy and plan for the future of New York’s charter schools and, more generally, the public education system. As you consider changes to the State’s charter law in order to qualify for the Federal Race to the Top funding, I recommend that any reforms should address three fundamental principles: (1) ensure fairness and equity between public and charter schools; (2) establish greater accountability and transparency about charter school operations; and, most importantly, (3) guarantee that a quality education is available to all students. In order to realize charter schools’ full potential, and share that effect with the larger educational system, we should address the relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools. This means adopting school siting policies that do not permit disparate educational settings. For example, one of the goals of the Contract for Excellence was to reduce class sizes, which has not been fully realized in New York City. Accordingly, there may be instances where a traditional school has higher class sizes than a charter school that gets housed in the same school building. Reform proposals should address this issue to eliminate any actual or perceived inequalities in funding and the system. Parents in charter schools should also have the same opportunities for involvement as parents in our traditional public schools. Parents can be powerful allies to teachers and principals by providing support to students to be motivated about their education. It is important that charter schools engage their parent base by establishing an independent parents association or parent teacher association. Allowing parents to fully and meaningfully participate in educational decisions at charter schools will help lead to increased educational outcomes and create allies in educating students. Charter schools must also be more accountable and transparent in their operations and management. This would allow educators, and parents, to learn from the best practices in the most successful charter schools, which can be used to improve educational outcomes throughout the system. In order to accomplish this, I recommend that the state law should empower the state and local comptroller to conduct regular audits of charter schools – similar to the recent amendments to the education law under the 2009 mayoral control reauthorization legislation. These reforms will allow government and the public to more effectively measure charter school progress, as well as determine areas for improvement. Similarly, charter schools must be more transparent by allowing the public to utilize the tools available through the State’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain more comprehensive information about charter school operations. Further, charter school officers and employees should be subject to the same financial disclosure and conflict of interest requirements as traditional public school employees. These accountability and transparency guidelines will ease the ability for state and local officials, as well as the public, to ensure that charter schools are providing students with the additional learning opportunities that they were designed to foster and stimulate, as well as judge that they are doing so in a fair and equitable manner. Charter schools have the potential to be breeding grounds for innovations that could lead to improvements in the traditional education system. It is important that charter schools achieve this while operating equitably and fairly toward all students, including and especially the neediest students -English Language Learners, children living in poverty, such as those eligible for free lunch, and special education and homeless students. The lack of equity, accountability, and transparency in some schools has made it difficult to ensure that the system is providing a quality education to all students instead of just some smaller segment of the student body. Any reform in the laws governing charter schools should provide meaningful and consistent oversight to ensure that charter schools comply with these requirements. Additionally, the State Education Department should address this issue by taking steps to improve the existing charter school lottery process. This will help to ensure that students, regardless of their academic or personal needs, have access to charter schools and the opportunities they present. When taken together, I believe that these recommendations will ensure that charter schools are more efficient, accountable, and transparent, and will allow educators and administrators to marry the best aspects of the charter school system with those of the traditional public school system. This will also ensure that the school system as a whole achieves its most important goal — providing equal educational opportunities to all of its students. Thank you in advance for your consideration and your anticipated prompt response to this matter. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or my Policy Director, DeNora Getachew, at 212-669-7200. Sincerely, Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate for the City of New York Gale A. Brewer, 6th Council District Fernando Cabrera, 14th Council District Margaret Chin, 1st Council District Leroy G. Comrie, Jr., 27th Council District Elizabeth Crowley, 30th Council District Erik Martin Dilan, 37 Council District Daniel Dromm, 25th Council District Mathieu Eugene, 40th Council District Julissa Ferreras, 21st Council District Helen D. Foster, 16th Council District Vincent J. Gentile, 43rd Council District Letitia James, 35th Council District Karen Koslowitz, 29th Council District Bradford Lander, 39th Council District Jessica S. Lappin, 5th Council District Stephen Levin, 33rd Council District Melissa Mark-Viverito, 8th Council District Rosie Mendez, 2nd Council District Annabel Palma, 18th Council District Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., 47th Council District Diana Reyna, 34th Council District Joel Rivera, 15th Council District James Sanders, Jr., 31st Council District Larry B. Seabrook, 12th Council District James Vacca, 13th Council District Jumaane Williams, 45th Council District Cc: Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Mayor Chancellor Joel Klein, New York City Department of Education