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To read NY's Race to the Top bid, wear rose colored glasses

New York State’s Race to the Top application is nearly a printer-jamming 1,000 pages, but a quick skim of the documents offers some insight into how the state is presenting itself and its proposals to judges in Washington.

Charter cap:

Throughout the fight over whether and how to lift the state’s charter cap, state education officials and the Board of Regents advocated for more than doubling the number of charters allowed in New York. Lifting the cap would not only improve the state’s chances at winning federal money, they said, it had become necessary as New York was closing in on its 200 school limit.

In December, Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch told GothamSchools: “My opinion is that the charter cap is now at a place where it will prevent us from opening great charter schools.” Yet the state’s application paints a distinctly different picture of the charter cap’s effect:

“Article 56 of New York’s Education Law does include a cap on the number of charter schools that may be formed, other than charter schools formed by conversion of an existing public school, but such cap does not prohibit or effectively limit the number of high-performing charter schools in the state.” (emphasis mine)

It’s commonly known that the state’s charter law allows for 200 schools, but there’s a little-known provision that doesn’t count conversions — district schools that opt to become charter schools — in that limit. With this in mind, the application states that while there may appear to be 200 allowable charter schools, but there are actually 4,740 if you include all the district schools that could convert.

“The total number of charter schools that currently may form in New York are 4,540 conversion charter schools plus 200 non-conversion charter schools, or 4,740. This represents approximately 104 percent of the total schools in the state that are allowed to be charter schools.”

The wording has charter advocates like New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy more than a little flummoxed.

“If New York had a 10-year record of converting its schools into charter schools, that would be one thing and they could make that argument come off as more plausible, but it’s a very legalistic argument to make. And it should not be taken seriously,” he said.

Charter conversion is a rarity in New York, in part because schools that convert remain under the teachers union contract, an idea that most charter school operators find unappealing. In total, there are only 6 conversion charter schools in the state.

“In fairness to the department, the legislature didn’t give them anything to work with,” Murphy said. “They’re putting their best argument forward and it’s a hollow one.”

Tisch defended the application’s language.

“The application clarifies exactly what New York State allows, and frankly conversions are tools that are used,” she said.

SUNY charters
New York’s application gives the number of charter schools that are currently open, but it downplays the number that are set to open next year. It states:

As of the 2009-10 school year-to-date, New York has 140 charter schools currently operating (with an additional 14 charter schools approved to begin operating in 2010-2011 or later).

According to Murphy, there are an additional 17 authorized schools that will open next year, bringing the total to 31. The application doesn’t count schools that were turned down by the Board of Regents and will open under SUNY approval. Under state law, SUNY can independently authorize charter schools, meaning that if the Board of Regents vetoes a charter application, SUNY can override the decision.

Test scores and teachers

In the months that led up to the Race to the Top and in the face of opposition from state and local teachers unions, SED officials said linking test scores to teacher tenure would be part of the plan. But up until now, it they never said how much weight the test scores would have in determining which teachers were successful.

The state’s application says it plans to use five factors in coming up with an “education effectiveness score” for teachers and principals, one of which is test scores. Districts that signed onto the plan will use student data as 30-40 percent of that score, placing “student growth at the center of their evaluation system.

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