March 07, 2007

President Iannuzzi: Charter schools a weakness in governor's plan

Source:  Times Union (Albany)

The following letter to the editor by NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi appeared in the Times Union (Albany) Wednesday, March 7, 2007.

Richard C. IannuzziGov. Eliot Spitzer's bold plan to reshape New York's educational landscape to focus on reform, resources and results -- the new three R's -- will be front and center as the Legislature works on the state budget.

The philosophical direction in this year's state education budget proposal is a matter of principle. The governor is promising public schools the resources they need to sustain academic excellence and, at the same time, is providing struggling students the additional resources needed to seriously address the achievement gap. The governor's proposal of $1.7 billion in additional state aid this year and $7 billion more over four years would give every district at least a 3 percent increase in basic aid. High-need districts would get even more -- for example, Albany would receive a 15.4 percent increase in state aid and Schenectady's state aid would rise more than 18 percent. This approach would reinforce the vast percentage of schools statewide that are doing well while putting necessary resources where improvement is needed.

It's a matter of principle. Every child deserves a great public school, and resources must be earmarked appropriately to make that possible.

With the additional resources, the governor has placed an emphasis on investing in research-proven strategies. For teachers, this has always made sense. The state would commit to reforms that are demonstrated to help children learn, such as universal pre-K and smaller class sizes, both particularly valuable for students in poor communities.

Spitzer also ties these new resources to an expectation of results and greater accountability, another common-sense concept and one we embrace. Teachers live and breathe accountability -- as do our students. Grade-by-grade testing, graduation requirements tied to Regents exams, and school report cards are just a few of the measures introduced over the past decade to document student progress. As teachers and taxpayers, we respect the myriad instruments of accountability used to measure performance. The governor's plan now asks superintendents and school boards to be more accountable for how public dollars are spent and for how children learn. This gives everyone a greater stake in ensuring student success. The governor's road map for public education clearly sets New York in the right direction. Of course, it's not perfect and the Legislature will need to work on some areas not addressed. And there are a couple of potential detours that are cause for serious concern.

The governor's proposal to expand the number of charter schools is inconsistent with the emphasis on accountability and reform that is central to his aid proposals. Consider Albany, where the charter school experiment -- a failed experiment, I might add -- has been devastating for taxpayers. Next year, city schools will pay some $23 million to fund charter schools, but taxpayers have neither a voice nor a vote in how these schools are run. The so-called charter transition aid proposed by the governor, about $2.5 million, doesn't cover the $6 million increase in charter payments the district faces for the 2007-08 school year alone. Charter enrollment and district expenses should be capped to protect taxpayers from having to fund two parallel school systems -- one accountable and one not. Charter schools, with a mixed record at best, must work not only for their cheerleaders, but for students and taxpayers, too.

A second detour from reform and accountability is the governor's proposal to provide a tax deduction for private and religious school tuition. Respecting the right of parents to choose a private or religious education for their children doesn't equate to passing the costs on to taxpayers. The rigorous accountability that rightly applies to teachers and students in public schools doesn't apply to private and religious institutions. These schools control who they accept, what they're taught, and who makes the decisions. That's their right, but that right shouldn't be funded by taxpayers.

It's a matter of principle: every child deserves a great public school, and public dollars should be invested wisely in schools that are accountable and open to all.

The positives in the governor's education plan are abundant. Spitzer has made a real commitment to excellence and equity and closing the achievement gap. Teachers understand educational excellence and what it takes to reach it. With the governor's vision and the support of our legislators for reform, resources and results, excellence becomes an achievable dream for all our children. That's how it should be.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of New York State United Teachers.