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UFT recommendations add fuel to the charter school debate fire

A list of proposals being pushed by the city teachers union to overhaul state charter school laws could shape the imminent debate over how and when to raise the charter school cap.

The proposals, which conclude a UFT report on charter school demographics, are intended to force charter schools to open their doors to the same populations served by district schools, which would mean enrolling larger numbers of English language learners and students with special needs. In the days leading up to January 19, the deadline for states’ applications to the federal Race to the Top competition, the union’s proposals could become bargaining chips for legislators hesitant to raise the charter cap without requiring significant changes in the way state charter schools are run.

Flanked by legislators from both houses at UFT headquarters in lower Manhattan on Sunday, union chief Michael Mulgrew called on Albany to, among other things, require charters to maintain student populations with similar demographics to the school districts in which they are located, centralize charter school admissions under the city or state education departments, cap the salaries of charter school administrators and ban charter schools from sharing space with district schools in New York City until the city has met its class size targets.

Mulgrew and the lawmakers insisted that the changes would bring the state’s charter schools closer to their original mission, as written in state law, to reduce educational inequities.

“The original intent of the law was fairness and access for all students,” Mulgrew said. “The way the law is written currently, we know that is not happening.”

New York’s charter law is currently under heightened scrutiny because states with fewer restrictions on the growth of charter schools are more likely to win the federal Race to the Top grant competition.

State law currently limits the number of allowable charters to 200, a number that many observers expect the state to hit early this year. Education Commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have come out in support of raising the cap, as has Governor Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader John Sampson. But other legislative leaders, among them Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have kept quiet on whether they will support a lift of the cap.

At UFT headquarters, a line-up of lawmakers, including Sampson, suggested that if they are to allow more charters in the state, they may also want to make other changes to the way the schools operate in the state.

“I think it’s important that before we race to change the cap or lift the cap, we need more information,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal.

Assemblyman Alan Maisel said the UFT’s findings bolstered the case for revision of the law. Maisel introduced a bill last May that would require charter schools to enroll English Language Learners and special education students in comparable numbers to schools in the school district or risk losing their charters, but the bill has sat in committee since its introduction.

“Hopefully this will give us some impetus for that legislation,” Maisel said.

Sampson said the report would help legislators make “the responsible decision” decide how to revise state charter law. However, Sampson stopped short of saying whether the changes should be a condition of raising the cap.

Proponents of charter schools were quick to characterize the UFT’s list of proposals as a politically motivated swipe at the charter movement.

Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York Charter School Association, said the union was “exploiting” the spotlight currently focused on the charter law to attempt greater union control over the schools. Murphy also called the proposals unworkable and in some cases detrimental to charter schools’ ability to operate.

“We have proposals on the table now that can get us more ELLs and special needs students in charter schools,” Murphy said. He pointed to a plan that would allow charter operators to run schools on more than one campus, which he said would allow charter schools to offer more specialized services for needy students that some small charter schools find difficult to provide. Murphy said that NYCSA also supports another proposal that would legally allow charters to give admissions preference to special education students.

“These are ideas we’ve got to deal with this problem,” Murphy said. “They’re realistic, they’re doable. It’s a much more realistic way.”

Here’s the full UFT report: