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Live-blogging State Sen. Bill Perkins' charter oversight hearings

State Senator Bill Perkins is currently convening his greatly anticipated daylong hearings on charter school oversight. The hearings, which have been in the works for months, are set to focus on the schools’ finances. Anna is at the hearing now (I’ll trade places with her this afternoon) and we’ll post with live updates from the hearings throughout the day.

5:00 p.m. The room is starting to clear, but Perkins persists.

Perkins: “There are two areas that are going to fatally cripple whatever the charter school movement does…the corruption and the politicization are the Achilles heel of the movement.”

“The pimping, if you will, of the public dollar and the politicization which some people are turning a blind eye to” is what will kill charters, he said. “And I say that not as a curse or a wish but as a concern.”

4:50 p.m.

Perkins: “What politicking can you not do in a charter?”

King: “The same as a district school. I want to make a wider point here: I wish for a day when we can hold a hearing about what goes on in the highest performing schools, and all of these reporters will come, and all these people will be here. I share your frustration about the politicization of education. And I wish for that day.”

Perkins: “That day will come. But its not today.”

4:20 p.m. In the category of “It Was Bound to Happen,” Maura reports that John White and Assembly woman Inez Barron are quite literally yelling at each other about the city’s achievement gap.

4:00 p.m. As if politics weren’t already present in the snippy questions and retorts exchanged throughout the day, the questioning has now turned to charter school operators’ political activity. Referring to a Crain’s article about charter school supporters’ efforts to find a pro-charter candidate to run against Perkins, the senator asked if it’s kosher for the DOE to give public money to politically active charter operators like Seth Andrews, the founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep Charter School.

Perkins: “If by authorizing that school, are you not authorizing political activity?”

White: We oversee educational activities. We can’t control people’s comments to newspapers.

3:20 p.m. Sen. Perkins asks how the Department of Education gets a hold of parents’ addresses and phone numbers in order to send out fliers promoting local charter schools. White responds that the city’s vendor, Vanguard, complies the list on its own. (This isn’t correct — the department gives Vanguard parents’ contact information and Vanguard simply organizes the mass mailings.)

Perkins says that White should be concerned that people believe the DOE is giving out their personal information.

“Noted,” White says.

Asked about today’s Daily News article about five charter schools that hired people who had family ties or other conflicts of interest, White says that only two of the schools were authorized by the Department of Education. Those two are East New York Preparatory School, which Chancellor Joel Klein ordered closed last week, and the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures & the Arts. This school, which the Daily News reports hired a bus company owned by a trustee’s husband, was only given a limited charter extension, White said.

3:00 p.m. Department of Education Deputy Chancellor John White is reading his testimony, which is likely to sound familiar to anyone who’s ever sat through a City Council education committee hearing.

“To be clear we do not advocate for charter schools over district schools,” White says. “We simply advocate for great schools especially in neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked such options.”

He notes that district schools in Harlem have made gains while more charter schools have opened in the area and says support for both types of schools is “entirely compatible.”

White also points out that though the issue of co-locating charter schools and district schools in the same buildings gets a lot of attention, most space-sharing agreements are between multiple district schools. “Some of our best schools are co-located,” he says.

2:40 p.m. New York State Deputy Commissioner of Education John King is up now. “The Regents have asked the legislature to strengthen the accountability and transparency elements of the charter school statute as part of raising the charter cap,” he said.

Following him is Jonas Chartock, Executive Director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, who made the case that charter authorizers have been given short shrift. “We’re the link between the legislation you created and the schools built on the ground,” he said. That link may become strained if the Charter Schools Institute loses 70 percent of its budget due to cuts.

2:30 p.m. After hours of testimony, a parent is finally on the stand, Maura reports. Latrina Miley, the mother of a kindergartner at Girls Preparatory Charter School, said her daughter has been suspended four times (most recently, yesterday) and she had to go outside of the school — to Bellevue Hospital — to get her daughter diagnosed with ADHD. “Sisterhood is not giving up on a child. It’s not pushing out kids with spercial needs,” she said.

1:04 p.m. Jackson just finished testifying, Anna reports. He covered a broad range of issues beyond just charter schools, she says, including school closures, how Contracts for Excellence money is being spent, possible teacher layoffs and school turnarounds.

And now everyone is taking a quick break. The hearing is scheduled to last until 5 p.m. But since so far we’ve made it through just four speakers — out of roughly 30 people who are signed up to speak — we could be in for a long day.

12:35 p.m. Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s education committee, is up now. He began by describing the bad experience his daughter, a teacher, had in Buffalo’s three charter schools. (She now teaches at a public school in Virginia, he says.)

Jackson then gave a personal example of what he calls “the DOE’s heavy handed tactics of releasing confidential contact information”:

“I speak from direct experience of one of my staff members with children in local public schools. She had an order of protection against the father of her children. She does not release her personal cell phone number. Yet in February, the day before the charter school fair, she received a solicitation on her personal cell phone to attend the fair. This is happening, while [district school] parent association members cannot even obtain contact information for their own schools’ parents.”

12:15 p.m. NYSUT is discussing the “complex subject” of charter funding, saying that charter and district schools are both getting hurt by budget cuts. Allinger danced around a question from Craig Johnson about whether the union would support giving charters money for building schools, Anna reports.

11:55 a.m. After NYSUT’s Allinger rattled off examples of financial mismanagement at charter schools, Michael Benjamin asks Allinger whether good charters should be shadowed by those few bad examples.

Allinger responded that there’s no way to know who’s good and who’s bad right now. “All we have are questions,” he said. “If a charter school is doing the right thing then we should applaud them. But let’s make sure it’s real success.”

To counter the claim that charters counsel out many of the neediest students, Benjamin argues that this offense is not unique to charter schools. “New York State and city public schools have been notorious for counseling students into GED programs,” Benjamin said. “We can’t even tell where those students have gone. We need to have an increasing outrage about that, as well as seeking greater transparency.”

11:40 a.m. Charter school advocates are arguing that today’s hearings are evidence that Perkins is out of touch with his constituents. Perkins’ Harlem district includes about one in five of the city’s charter schools.

A spokesman for the pro-charter group Education Reform Now sent over this new TV ad, which he says will be a “significant part” of the advocacy group’s advertising campaign downstate. The ad features Harlem parents asking for a lift on the charter cap and blasting Perkins for opposing charter school expansion. One parent featured in the ad is Daniel Clark, Sr., the father of a student at Harlem’s Democracy Prep Charter School and field director of the new pro-charter group Parent Power Now!

“Bill Perkins is just playing politics,” Clark says in the ad. “It’s all about his political future and not about the needs of his constituents, like me, and like my son.”

11:35 a.m. NYSUT’s Allinger just compared the lack of financial oversight of charters to “taxation without representation.”

11:16 a.m. City Department of Education Press Secretary David Cantor, who is sitting near Anna in the hearing room, wondered, “Why hasn’t the union ever suggested that we close the (rare) non-charter school in which there is conflict of interest/financial impropriety?”

Cantor also argued that the union’s argument that many charters intentionally cream the best students seems moot, given Mulgrew’s comments about the union’s own charters, which were granted a limited 3-year renewal for having too few special education students and English language learners and for violating open meetings law.

Mulgrew’s criticism of the high salaries of charter school operators is an example of the pot calling the kettle black, Cantor argued. Mulgrew makes a lot of money, as do many UFT high-level staff, he said.

11:09 a.m. The state teachers union will submit a report next week on financial abuses that some charter schools are engaging in, Allinger said. He argued that the key thing “is to allow the comptroller to do audits” of the schools.

10:58 a.m. Now Steve Allinger, legislative director of New York State United Teachers, is testifying. “Despite the rhetoric, attacks,and finger pointing, NYSUT is not opposed to charter schools,” he said.

Allinger, like Mulgrew, referred to the “original promise of charter schools” — the ideal that charters should be designed to serve English learners and special education students. The teachers unions often argue that the original purpose of charters have been corrupted by charter management organizations who turn schools into businesses.

Allinger said there’s no way NYSUT will allow a cap lift without other regulatory changes. He said that if the cap were lifted now, charter authorizers and the city currently don’t have the capacity to oversee an additional 200 schools to make sure there aren’t abuses. “Any lifting of the cap must be accompanied by the needed reforms to the law,” he argued.

10:45 a.m. “This hearing is all over the place,” Anna reports. “It’s covering every hot button issue in the city.” Assemblyman Michael Benjamin asked Mulgrew about the city’s school closure plan and the UFT’s lawsuit against it. Now Perkins is asking about teacher quality. Very few of the questions are actually on the subject of charter finance.

Benjamin is also arguing for greater school choice. “I would even support school vouchers for parents to choose where they want to send their children,” he said. “I believe in total, absolute choice.”

10:34 a.m. For the first time, Mulgrew is responding to questions about English Language Learners and special education students at the UFT-run charter schools. Like other charters, the UFT’s schools enroll relatively few English learners and special ed students compared to district schools in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“When I became president, I said there’s something wrong with the lottery because we don’t have the percentages of the special education and English language learners as the schools around us. We need to do more,” Mulgrew said. “What we’re doing right now is we’re trying to work with the parents and immigrant communities and we’re trying to do some more recruitment. But it should be something more formalized in legislation to make it happen.”

10:30 a.m. Mulgrew is arguing for some limitations on the salaries of charter school CEOs. “These are ridiculous salaries,” he said.

10:23 a.m. Anna reports that the vast majority of the 60 or so people who made it into the hearing room seem skeptical of charter schools and are applauding the schools’ critics. Charter school advocates counter that Perkins let his allies into the room early, leaving charter supporters shut out of the small hearing room.

10:09 a.m. In his first question to Mulgrew, Perkins said, “I’m going to have to ask you to please take a moment to reach into your pockets and to see if I’m in your pocket, because it’s been reported time and time again that Senator Perkins is in your pocket.”

10:00 a.m. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew is testifying now. In his prepared remarks, Mulgrew argued that the cap on charter schools should not be raised unless the state also regulates charters to protect against financial corruption and patronage in the schools and to make sure the schools enroll more needy students.

“Despite the ulterior motives of some, it’s a discussion worth having, but not before we take steps to reform the charter school industry and ensure that it properly serves kids and their communities,” Mulgrew said. “We also need to consider that the school system might not be ready for a dramatic scale-up, especially because there are major controversies over shared space playing out in schools around the five boroughs.”

9:50 a.m. We’re still on the first speaker, prominent education historian and charter school critic Diane Ravitch, Anna reports. She’s being cross-examined by State Senator Craig Johnson, one of charter school’s strongest supporters in the Senate, and was the main Senate Democratic backer of Governor David Paterson’s bill to raise the charter cap back in January. The two had a testy back and forth about the Stanford study on charters, which showed mixed results for charters nationally but reported strong performance for New York City charters.

The hearing room, which Anna reports is about the size of the space the city uses for Panel for Educational Policy meetings at Tweed, is filled to capacity. There are dozens of people outside who can’t get in. Anna spoke to a group of Harlem Success Academy parents who said they signed up and submitted testimony, although no one from the charter school network is on the list of people testifying.

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