Why I Resigned From the SUNY Board of Trustees

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Pedro Noguera, a trustee of the State University of New York, resigned late last month, citing concerns that SUNY and its Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes charters in New York, have a political agenda to increase the number of charters, rather than a mission to develop experimental schools. SchoolBook invited Mr. Noguera to explain his decision. Here is his open letter.

For four years, I was appointed to serve as a member of the State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees by Gov. David A. Paterson.

Not long after being appointed I was asked by the chairman, Carl Hayden, to serve as the chairman of the committee that oversaw the authorization of charter schools.

I knew that this would be a controversial position but I agreed to serve because I supported the original idea behind the creation of charter schools: that they could serve as educational sites where innovative practices could be developed that could be used to benefit children in public schools.

I also hoped that with SUNY behind them, the charter schools we authorized could serve as models of “best practice” for expanding access to college and improved forms of teacher education.

Sadly, it hasn't turned out this way. Politicians in New York and Washington are far more interested in competition between public and charter schools than they are in collaboration.

Additionally, mimicking the partisan rancor of the U.S. Congress, charter school advocates and opponents have been locked in a bitter and ugly conflict over the expansion of charters that has little to do with the educational needs of the children who have been least well served.

Despite the controversy, I stayed on as chairman because I was proud of SUNY's charter schools that have been recognized as among the highest performing charter schools in the nation. I had confidence in the staff of the Charter School Institute (C.S.I.), who approached their work with professionalism and rigor, and who held the schools we authorized to the highest standards.

I was hopeful that eventually the rancor might die down, and optimistic about the possibility that we might find ways to use SUNY charters as models for what could be possible in other schools.

In recent months we began authorizing schools for students that had been particularly hard to serve: homeless youth, students who had recently been released from juvenile corrections, children with learning disabilities, boys of color.

The fact that we had educators willing to step forward to embrace the challenge of educating these children, given the track record of failure with such groups in traditional public schools, seemed to be an ideal role for charters.

I felt good about the work we were doing, and despite the fact that the opponents of charter schools attacked me personally, I was unconcerned because I knew children were benefiting from the schools we created.

Ironically, by authorizing a charter we were effectively freeing a school from the constraints created by the State Education Department and the city Department of Education, which more often than not make the job of running a school more difficult. I also felt that as a public institution dedicated to higher education, SUNY could do its work in a manner that was apolitical and focused on evidence.

Despite my optimism, I have also had a growing awareness that the proliferation of charter schools and their co-location -- placement within an existing public school -- were actually undermining rather than improving the public schools. Particularly in neighborhoods such as central Harlem and cities such as Albany and Rochester where there is now a concentration of charter schools, it was becoming increasingly clear that we were contributing to a problem.

Although charter schools were serving low-income children of color, they were often under-enrolling the most disadvantaged children -- those with learning disabilities, English language learners, and those with chronic behavior problems.

These children are typically under-represented in the lotteries used to select students for charters, and as a result, these children are being concentrated in the “failing” public schools.

Thus far, the only strategy that the D.O.E. and State Education Department has had to address the plight of these schools is to label them as “failing” and call for their closure. It is a set up, and it is blatantly unfair.

In too many cases, the new charter schools are not serving the same children as the schools that have been shut down. Instead, those children are being reassigned to other schools that will soon be labeled failing once again.

Whether it was intended or not, in many cases charter schools are contributing to a more inequitable educational playing field.

I still believe that there is a lot that educators in traditional public schools can and should learn from the charter schools. I am unsympathetic toward educators who tolerate chaos and disorder in their schools, and who refuse to accept any responsibility for the under-performance of the students they serve.

KIPP schools are often better managed and frequently get better results. Schools like Excellence for Boys and La Cima in Bedford Stuyvesant are obtaining impressive results with children who more often than not fail to achieve in traditional public schools.

And despite the controversies raised by co-location, the Success Academies are providing the children they serve with extraordinary learning opportunities.

Only the most ideological and close-minded partisan would dismiss the accomplishments of these schools simply because they are charters. Parents who want the best for their children certainly do not.

The real problem in New York is the absence of leadership. Our elected officials are watching as communities fight each other over the placement of charter schools and they are silent as the interests of children are ignored.

Resigning from the Board of Trustees will not solve this problem, but I do hope my action will prod those who have been entrusted to lead to reflect on what they can do to resolve the conflicts that are paralyzing our schools and polarizing our communities.

It takes more than tough rhetoric about standards to improve public schools, and it will take more than a few charter schools to deliver the educational opportunities our children deserve.