the cruelest cut

A unionized charter school says it was betrayed by the unions

Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget. (Lisette Lopez, Renaissance student)
Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget.

Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago.

The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago.

Charter school activists have said that they’re hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet.

That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.)

A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance’s staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. “Our members here feel shafted,” Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance’s director of programs and accountability, said. “We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening.”

Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.

Renaissance teachers had joined other charter school union members in a campaign to lobby against possible cuts to charter schools after a New York State teachers union official, Alan Lubin, indicated in February that he supported slashing funds to charter schools. Charter school supporters said that what he called for would have amounted to a double cut for charter schools, whose funding is based on the amount of money that goes to traditional public schools.

The concerns led a group of charter school teachers represented by unions to plan a press conference that would have called on the president of the New York City and national teachers union, Randi Weingarten, to denounce Lubin’s testimony. But the press conference was canceled after Weingarten wrote a letter to charter school teachers assuring them that she does not support unequal cuts. (Peter Murphy, of the New York State Charter School Association, first reported the canceled press conference on his blog.)

Tishuk, who as an administrator at Renaissance belongs to the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that he also reached out to his union for advice, and was told by president Ernest Logan that he had not heard of any cuts. (I’ve yet to speak to Logan about this; I will report back with a comment from him.)

Tishuk said that representatives of the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, came to Renaissance last week to discuss concerns about the budget with staff, meeting first with Renaissance teachers and then with administrators. Tishuk said that staff members did not leave satisfied.

“We don’t think that it’s consistent to have a union charter school basically lose the support of the union. There’s plenty of political back and forth — they say the numbers are this, we say the numbers are that – but no matter how you cut it, next year I’m doing a budget that’s going to have $500,000 less in income, and $300,000 more in costs,” he said.

Tishuk said that he was also dismayed by testimony from a leader of the DC 37 union at yesterday’s City Council hearing about charter school expansion. A union leader testified critically of charter schools, yet office aides at Renaissance are represented by DC 37. “It just blew my mind,” Tishuk said.

I have not spoken yet to the two UFT officials Tishuk said he spoke with. I’ll report with those details.

Tishuk’s testimony to the City Council is below. You can also check out this Web site that students at Renaissance have made to protest the funding freeze.

Esteemed City Council Members,

My name is Nicholas Tishuk and I am the Director of Programs and Accountability at the Renaissance Charter School.  Our small school has served the Jackson Heights community in Queens for fifteen years and currently serves 530 students grades K-12.

We are a school that works:  we have happy kids, a dedicated and respected staff, and an involved parent body. We have received “A” ratings on our most recent K-8 and High School progress reports from the Department of Education and have K-8 and Regents scores that outperform similar schools and the City averages.  We are, in the very best sense, a community school serving the needs of families in Jackson Heights, District 30 and Queens.  As a conversion school, we are one of the oldest charter schools in New York City.

Our message is clear, charter schools are public schools and our 530 students and their families deserve to be treated with respect.  The recently passed budget from Albany has been called a “freeze”, but we had already received a preliminary allocation from the Department of Education and this “freeze” has slashed our expected budget by over $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.  This catastrophic budget cut has forced us to come together as a community.  I invite all City Council Members to visit our student developed website, linked below, which documents the rallies and march that our students participated in to let elected officials know how these cuts affect our small school in Queens.

Councilmen Dilan’s New York City Resolution 1889 is a step backward.  By making access to facilities and space more difficult, the City Council will be making a grave mistake.  I am an absolute believer and advocate for public education in New York City and, whether foes like them or not, charter schools are public schools full of public school children. To cut the funding for these children, as Albany has done, or to restrict their access to buildings, as Resolution 1889 proposes, is an injustice against the civil rights of our students to a great education.

Thank you for your time.

Nicholas Tishuk
The Renaissance Charter School

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.