The state teachers union is lobbying against a bill that would allow charter schools to serve students with special needs more readily.
The bill would allow charter schools, which essentially operate as one-school districts now, to pool their resources to offer special services to students with disabilities and English language learners. The bill was introduced in April, just weeks before state charter school authorizers proposed enrollment targets to comply with a requirement added to the state’s charter school law in 2010 that the schools serve “comparable” numbers of students with special needs.
Charter school advocates have spent recent weeks lobbying for The Charter School Students With Special Needs Act and until now had encountered little resistance in Albany. The bill sailed through the State Senate’s education committee, and Assemblyman Karim Camara introduced an Assembly version two weeks ago.
But last week, NYSUT circulated a memo urging lawmakers to reject the bill. The memo lauded the bill’s sponsors and acknowledged charter schools’ challenges in serving special needs student populations. But it also warned that the bill could result in “a huge expansion of charter schools” and create an arrangement in which charter schools “segregate all of their students with disabilities to one site.”
The bill would allow charter schools to form consortiums to serve students with special needs. Under the proposed law, a consortium might assign one school to serve students with autism, while another school would hire staff who is specially trained to help students who are emotionally disturbed. Or it might hire teachers jointly who can assist students with disabilities in multiple schools.
Those practices “would result in warehousing special needs’ students,” a NYSUT official said about the bill.
Groups that advocate for charter schools in the city and across the state charged that the union “misunderstands and misrepresents” the bill in a memo of their own.
“This bill provides no new resources for charter schools and creates no new space under the cap,” reads the memo, which was distributed by New York Charter Schools Association and the New York City Charter School Center. “It simply provides a new, voluntary tool for charter schools to serve more students with a wider variety of special needs. We are troubled that NYSUT would oppose such an outcome.”
The memo adds, “The bill merely allows charter schools to do what school districts across New York State do now: gather students with similar needs to provide specialized program.” (New York City is moving away from this model and instead is requiring all schools to accommodate the students who enroll, regardless of their needs.)
NYCSA President Bill Phillips said he thought NYSUT’s opposition was more pragmatic than ideological. “Obviously, they don’t want more children to go to charters because a portion of the funding follows the child, and that’s a NYSUT membership problem,” he said.
The vast majority of charter schools don’t employ unionized staff members, a major point of contention for NYSUT, which has 600,000 members. NYSUT and the city’s teachers union, the UFT, have also criticized charter schools for failing to serve a fair share of students with special needs.
In a sign of the union’s considerable political muscle, the last-minute push to defeat the bill has suddenly cast doubt that the bill will pass at all.
“I would assume that the Assembly would not pass a bill that NYSUT opposes like this,” an Albany source said, alluding to the Assembly’s traditional reluctance to flout the union’s under the leadership of Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Charter school advocates said that they are still holding out hope that the bill will pass. The legislative session ends on Thursday, but lawmakers are racing to wrap up all of their bills by today
Tuesday, to allow for a three-day waiting period that is required for public review before final votes are taken.