War of Words Over Charter Schools

New York is broke.

The city is preparing to layoff thousands of teachers if the governor's worst-case scenario budget goes through.

And the feds are offering states extra money for their schools if they agree to certain conditions.

If that sounds like the build-up to a climactic "Bad News Bears" moment when the underdogs all pull together to win, think again. After all, this is New York.

Instead of coming together, the players appear to be retreating into their corners. Today, the lobbying group Education Reform Now released a blistering television ad calling on lawmakers to "stand up to the teachers' union and allow more charter schools" or the state could lose out on $700 million in federal school aid.

The ad is referring to the Race to the Top contest, a $4.3 billion fund to reward states that agree to key reforms favored by the Obama administration. Those reforms include allowing more charter schools. New York lost the first round of Race to the Top this year in part because it allows only 200 charters statewide. But only in part. There were many other categories where the state lost points. Delaware and Tennessee were the only winners. Yet, federal reviewers wrote that it looked like New York lacked the political will to lift the charter cap. Albany lawmakers had worked right up to the January deadline but weren't able to agree on a way to allow more charters. And they're apparently working right up to the June 1 deadline for round 2 of Race to the Top, with no solution yet in sight. The Senate passed a charter bill but the Assembly has yet to pass one of its own.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew says the ad by Education Reform Now is filled with "blatant mischaracterizations." He says the union supports more charters as long as they're subjected to more scrutiny. The Senate bill would allow 460 charters, but the union believes it doesn't go far enough in requiring the privately managed public schools to take a proportionate share of English Language Learners and students with special education needs. The union also wants the state comptroller to be able to audit charters. And it wants to ban for-profit management companies from running charters. The state says only about 15% of charters fall under that category.

Education Reform Now is connected to Democrats for Education Reform, a group run by former Daily News reporter Joe Williams. He and his team have been raising lots of money from Democrats who believe their party is too beholden to the teachers' union. They also sent out fliers this month criticizing the union's "last in, first out" policy, which requires the city to lay off teachers based on seniority. Chancellor Joel Klein has also argued that this system should be abolished as the city faces the very real prospect of layoffs.

As the fliers and television ads go after the teachers, the union has been airing its own radio ads calling on lawmakers to restore the $1.4 billion in education cuts proposed by Gov. David Paterson. UFT President Mulgrew says that even if the state did win a Race to the Top grant, it couldn't use all the money to plug the budget hole because the funds must go to new reforms. Mulgrew also says his union has been working to win Race to the Top by agreeing to a new evaluation system for teachers, which is more nuanced than the current Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory ratings. This is another one of those big reforms favored by the Obama administration.

But charter schools are evidently a priority for Washington. Yesterday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the Kings Collegiate charter school in Brooklyn with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. Duncan also visited two regular public schools (and waded into local politics when he agreed to visit one whose principal is disliked by the teachers' union). The Education Secretary was asked by reporters about the state's chance in Race to the Top, and whether Albany must pass a law allowing more charters. Duncan said he didn't want to rate New York's chances or give anything away. But he predicted the state would do the "right thing."

"I understand that there are some honest disagreements among some of the parties here in New York," he said. "Let's be honest, it wouldn't be New York if there weren't some friendly disagreements."