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Albany seeks trade: more charters, but change in who grants them

Assembly Democrats are ready to approve a lift to the state’s charter school cap — but only if they get a substantial change to the way charter schools are launched and approved in return.

Under the plan being developed by members of the state Assembly, the power to approve charters would be consolidated under the state Board of Regents, who currently share that authority with the State University of New York and local school districts. (Schools authorized by a school district are also granted final approval by the Regents.) The SUNY office has the strongest reputation and has been praised by the Obama administration as a model for developing charter schools around the country.

The plan would also change who decides when and where a new charter school is needed.

Right now, wannabe school leaders pitch plans to either SUNY or the Regents, who let the school open if the plan is solid and there are spots available under the cap. Under the Assembly proposal, the state education department would determine when and where a new charter school should open, and would then issue a request for proposals from charter school operators to launch the school.

Formal language on the proposal has not yet emerged, but there is consensus on the contours of the plan, sources said.

“It makes sense to have one authority,” said Democratic Assemblyman Alan Maisel.

Maisel argued that having a single, centralized body approving charter schools would prevent authorizers from inadvertently allowing charters to dominate certain school districts or neighborhoods, a move he said was necessary to prevent charters from sapping resources from district schools.

Maisel said he was indifferent to whether the Board of Regents or SUNY become the sole authorizer. But the Assembly’s move to grant the Board of Regents the exclusive authority to grant charters has the elements of a power play: the state legislature appoints members of the Board of Regents, while SUNY trustees are appointed by the governor.

The city’s Department of Education and charter school supporters are coming out strongly against the plan.

“I haven’t seen the details of the proposal, but the intention of the proposal clearly appears to be a backdoor way to limit and inhibit where and when charter schools can be started,” said James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center. “And that will limit and inhibit the number of great schools teachers and leaders can start.”

Merriman argued that abolishing the SUNY charter authorizer would hurt the state’s chances at winning coveted Race to the Top funds, a goal widely acknowledged to be a motivating factor for raising the charter cap.

“I think dismantling what the U.S. Department of Education has declared as a model for authorizer quality will not be viewed with favor by the U. S. Department of Education,” Merriman said.

To put pressure on the legislature to abandon the plan, the city is also waiting to endorse the state’s Race to the Top proposal.

“In our view, [the plan is] extremely problematic with Race to the Top,” said DOE Press Secretary David Cantor. “Legislators are thinking that any kind of cap lift passes muster, but we don’t think that’s true.”

The new plan would also change the city’s relationship with charter schools. Right now, Chancellor Joel Klein can approve charter applications and submit them to the Regents for approval. The new method, managed by the state education department, would bypass the city.

Last week, the city ignored the state’s first deadline for signing on to the state’s Race to the Top plan to exert leverage over negotiations. Today, the state extended the deadline again to allow more time for the different sides to come to an agreement.

The next legislative session is scheduled for Tuesday, the day the state’s Race to the Top application must be submitted to the federal government. Sources said it was likely Governor David Paterson would call the legislature into session on Monday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, in order to pass a bill before the deadline.