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Proposed budget would slash funds to SUNY charter authorizer

The state organization commonly cited as a national model for approving and overseeing charter schools is facing quietly proposed cuts that would slash its budget by nearly 70 percent.

The State University of New York’s Charter School Institute (CSI), which oversees charter schools from the union-run UFT School to the popular KIPP schools, is slated to lose $1.7 million of its $2.4 million budget under budgets proposed by both the Assembly and the Senate.

CSI is one of the groups that are the prime oversight bodies for the state’s charter schools. Known as “authorizers,” the groups are responsible for reviewing proposals for new charter schools, monitoring the schools they approve, and closing charters they deem under-performing. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised CSI for its rigor and willingness to shutter schools that don’t live up to high expectations.

“All of that takes real human resources,” said Jonas Chartock, the agency’s executive director.

The cuts are a serious threat but far from a done deal. The institute has historically been a target of political efforts, often supported by the teachers union, to weaken its authority to open charter schools. But the union is not supporting these cuts. Rather, the proposals appear to be more prompted by the state’s financial duress.

The legislature frequently proposes drastic cuts to agencies in initial budget proposals that are later reduced as the final budget is negotiated, charter school advocate Peter Murphy said.  The point is to force agencies to open up and justify their spending. “I’m not trying to minimize it, but it’s going to be subject of negotiation,” said Murphy. The governor’s proposed budget plan leaves the Charter Schools Institute’s funding intact.

New York State United Teachers president Richard Ianuzzi, who has frequently criticized charter schools for a lack of state oversight, today defended SUNY against the proposed cuts.

“A cut that would reduce oversight for charter schools just would not be in the best interests of accountability for the dollars the state is spending,” Ianuzzi said. “If you’re allocating the dollars for charter schools, you should be allocating the dollars to monitor them properly.”

Chartock said that he plans to develop stronger tools to make sure that the Institute’s charters schools improve their services to special education students and English learners, two groups that charter school detractors and supporters both say should be better served by the schools.

“We want to be able to do that in real time,” he said, “but this would really hinder our ability to respond to the critical questions that do surround charters.”

The cuts would be particularly devastating given that the number of charter schools CSI is responsible for overseeing is only likely to increase in the near future, Chartock said. Many advocates are urging Albany to lift the cap by June to increase the state’s competitive edge in the second round of the Race to the Top competition.

CSI is not the leanest authorizer in the state, but it does employ fewer staff per school than other authorizers. The agency employs 14 professional and four support staff members to oversee 74 of the state’s 160 charter schools. The city’s charter school office, which authorizes 66 schools, employs 10 staffers and operates with a budget of just under $1 million. The State Education Department’s Charter School Office, which oversees the 28 schools authorized by the Board of Regents, includes 10 professional and one support staff member.