by Steve Evangelista

I’m writing with Margaret Ryan on the eve of a forum about inequities in public education that we are hosting at Bank Street College of Education. We chose specifically to focus this panel discussion and roundtable on public school education, and not just charter school education, even though we have been running a charter school for the past nine years. We have heard some concerns such as, “So this is a charter school panel. When is the public school panel?”

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: inequity in public education is not a charters vs. public issue (it’s much bigger); and charter schools are public schools. Charters and district schools are indeed administered differently, and charters can do some things that district public schools cannot do.
Below are a baker’s dozen of popular misconceptions about charter schools that we would like to clarify.

Claim 1: Charters aren’t publicly accountable
This misconception usually falls into two categories: concerns that district schools are in danger of closing more easily and thus are under more pressure to achieve; and concerns over lack of transparency on how public funds are spent.

Prior to the Joel Klein era, closing a district schools was a near impossibility. But charters have been closing around the state since the movement was in its infancy. While Mayor de Blasio has declared a moratorium on district school closures, charters continue to face a high level of scrutiny and must meet achievement goals in order to stay open, every five years; in fact, it’s written into the law.

At its best, since it is written into the law this way, charter school accountability is predictable, straightforward and reasonable. At Harlem Link, our authorizer helped us write an Accountability Plan in 2004. We used it in 2010 when we received a three year renewal and a revised version last year when we gained our five year renewal. Even with tweaks based on changing state standards, expectations laid out 10 years ago by our authorizer are still in effect.

Regarding finances, much has been made about the state comptroller’s attempt to audit charters four or five years ago, an attempt that was thrown out in court as an overreach of the office’s duties. Why? Because all charter school board meetings are public meetings, guided by the state’s Open Meetings Law, and charters are required to submit themselves to an external, independent audit each year. Unlike individual district schools, charters also file a 990 tax return with the Internal Revenue Service every year, which is available publicly online. Figuring out how charter schools spend their public dollars is a heckuva lot easier than doing the same for a district school!

Claim 2: Charters can kick out students
Charter schools are bound by the same statutory laws and common law that district schools face with regard to suspensions and expulsions. Within these laws, charters are free to establish more or less liberal policies with regard to expulsion, but that is a matter of policy and not law. Districts adopting “zero tolerance” policies over the years is an example of how this issue comes down to following the law and making a choice—the same laws and choices faced by both charters and districts.

One key difference is that charters, as individual districts, make their own policies, while districts make policy decisions for the dozens (or hundreds) of schools within their district.

Charters that “kick out” or “counsel out” students without following through on the due process protections and procedures built into the law and described by Goss v. Lopez are simply breaking the law. Is there any accountability for this possibility? Yes – remember that charter board meetings are public, open meetings, and groups such as Advocates for Children can point to or provide legal resources to protect children’s rights, the same as they would for abuse by traditional school districts.

At Harlem Link, we went through a lengthy and wrenching expulsion process during the last school year. We worked with our attorney, and a Legal Aid attorney, to ensure that the process was fair and legal. We did nothing differently than any school district is able to do in order to enforce its code of conduct.

Claim 3: Charters don’t serve special education students or English Language Learners
Charters are in fact required to serve special education students as well as English Language Learners.
This issue is a complicated one, because the very definition of a special education or English Language Learner student, which governed by law, is potentially fuzzy. Charters and districts have varying approaches to identifying and serving students so that they enter and exit these categories.

Generally, our state has recognized that this issue is enough of a concern regarding charters that when the charter law was reauthorized a few years ago, the new version required charters to ensure their percentages of students in these categories reflected the local community.

In some cases, charters actively seek students in these categories, giving them preference in the annual student enrollment lottery because of the school’s mission. Examples include Mott Haven Academy Charter School and Opportunity Charter School; the latter has a charter mandate of a nearly 50% special education population.

At our school, we have a comparable rate of special education to the local district schools—around 17% of our population (and, with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade level, most of those students are in the “high cost” category of receiving special education services more than 60% of the day). This fact is true despite the fact that we have multiple protections in place through our Response to Intervention process, preventing over-referral. We rarely refer students to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for special education services, and one year we actually de-certified more students than we referred. Our ELL students tend to exit out within a couple of years of enrolling in our school.

Claim 4: Charters raise millions of dollars, while district schools can’t
This claim is simply and unequivocally not true. Charters are 501(c)3 nonprofits, meaning they can raise philanthropic dollars—but the same is true for school districts, as well as Parent Associations.

It’s true that some charter schools, notably the larger networks, are able to raise millions more than almost all parent associations. It’s also true that some parent associations are able to raise millions; they just do so less publicly.

District school principals and school district officials are also able to go out and write grant proposals, bring in major donors, etc. The star entertainer Vanessa Williams “adopted” PS 46 in Harlem some years go. Why not?

Do you think that district school principals and officials are stretched thin with limited resources? The same is true for charters, but charters have the flexibility for strategic planning and, when they choose to seek philanthropic support, organize and plan around it. Districts and principals choosing not to do so is not a valid excuse for feeling left out of the philanthropic community.

Harlem Link had a fully functioning fund development department when we opened in 2005, but strategic decisions led to us closing it down a few years ago. (These are the kinds of decisions about resource allocation that facilitate charter schools’ focus on their missions, impossible in a district setting.)

With renewal as well as the Common Core transition behind us, and a long-term goal of being in a private space in view, our fundraising department is back—so click here if you’d like to give.

Claim 5: Charters have budgetary flexibility for things like smaller class sizes or co-teaching in every class
When comparing charter schools to individual district schools, this claim is absolutely true, and is one of the great advantages of running a charter school. Comparing charters (which are separate, single-school districts) to traditional school districts, it’s not true at all. Districts make budgetary decisions; they have the same range of choices charters have. Budgets express priorities; it’s up to districts to be flexible and creative in their budgeting.

This past year, the NYC public school pie was about $25 billion, for about 1.2 million children. In other words, the city spent over $20,000 per child. In comparison, charters received $13,527 per child. The Independent Budget Office estimated the additional benefit of charters in district building space (something like two-thirds of charters in the city) as about $3,000 per child, not even close to closing the gap.

Where are the rest of the district dollars going? As noted above, it’s darn hard to tell. At our school, we have jealously guarded our personnel expenses, but also budgeted conservatively over the years, to the point where we were able to run a deficit in 2012-13 for the first time (and budget for one in 2013-14), knowing that we will come out of the recession soon and continue to build our small base of reserve funding.

Claim 6: Charters can hire whomever they want
This is another claim that is, generally, absolutely true. Charters are not bound by complicated negotiated contracts that require the “dance of the lemons.” Staff members aren’t working out, or do things to harm children? They are fired. Staff members don’t like the working conditions? They can organize and collectively bargain. Labor laws require charters to be fair (and the National Labor Relations Board has been involved to ensure that’s true). But that does not mean that charters have to agree to obtuse policies that erect barriers to getting the best personnel possible in front of children every day.

Like Claim 5, this issue is a key reason that many educators choose to work in and start charter schools. At our school, we receive hundreds of resumes for each position we hire. We have the luxury of watching between five and ten demonstration lessons (depending on the year) before making a hire, so that we know a candidate will truly fit in with our mission and vision.

Claim 7: Charters can “cherry pick” or target certain populations of students
The state law requires that all students have equal access to admission to charter schools, with preference given to siblings and to residents who live close by the school. Similarly to Claim 2 above, charters can choose to break the law just like any district school could do so, but there are layers of accountability: the school’s board of trustees, the state authorizer, and any private citizen including parents or members of the press who can attend any of the 10 to 12 open, public board meetings that occur every year.

Much has been made about charter schools marketing their schools, including buying advertisement slots and sending out mass mailings. One idea behind the charter law was that parents would vote with their feet, but charters don’t have a natural constituency or “zone” from which to draw students. Charters need to make themselves known in order to become an option for members of the community.

At Harlem Link, we try to distinguish ourselves by sending out an annual mailing and visiting day care centers and school fairs. However, word of mouth is by far our most powerful recruiting tool. Certain buildings in certain housing projects, and certain families among West African immigrant groups, have pooled enrollment at our school as people pass on the word to their families and friends.

Districts, by the way, are also free to market, brand, advertise and otherwise target potential students. The fact that a “zone” usually exists for district schools while none exists for charters is often another impetus for charter schools to spend their time and budgetary resources raising philanthropic dollars, so as to compete for students’ and parents’ attention.

Claim 8: Charter teacher evaluations aren’t public, but district schools’ teacher evaluations are
This claim comes down to a matter of local policy as well. Some charter schools chose to participate in the value-added teacher evaluation analysis program that was published—name by name—in the New York Times and other media outlets. Some charters (like Harlem Link) chose not to participate, for a variety of reasons.

Our understanding is that New York City opted in. At Harlem Link, we did not; we found it marginally relevant to our work, since we have our own teacher evaluation tool that satisfies the state law but doesn’t reduce a human being to a number. If we’re remembering right, it’s a simple policy decision whether or not to opt in to this system. If not, there’s another reason why we’d rather work in and run a charter school than a district school! (But don’t blame us for bad policy decisions; tell the chancellor, the mayor or your state senator.)

Claim 9: Charters can demand things from parents that district schools cannot demand
Examples of this claim include signing contracts, showing up to school on time, showing up for detentions including parent detentions, and school uniforms, among others. Like Claims 5 and 6, this issue is a policy one. Charters are bound by the same education laws that district schools are. If districts choose not to enforce their attendance policies by focusing time and attention to it, that’s their choice.

Our understanding of the law is that charters cannot force parents to sign contracts. If they do (and exclude admissions on those grounds), they are breaking the law.

Our sense is that district school folks who make this claim are frustrated by the overwhelming nature of the work we all face, and have not allocated resources adequately to express basic priorities to families and follow up to ensure that there is compliance and understanding. At Harlem Link, we struggle to keep up with the enforcement of our own policies for things like uniforms and attendance, and we like it that way because it means that the policies are strict and that the follow-up required is laborious and thorough.

Claim 10: Charters don’t work with district schools; they adopt a “holier than thou” attitude
We can’t argue with this claim, in many cases, but then again, we don’t know the history of every district-charter relationship. We know that in the case of our school (and in the cases of many of our colleagues) we have adopted a collaborative, shared ethic around school improvement. We have received a reciprocal approach in return at times, and we have received the cold shoulder at other times.

There are examples all of the city of charter schools that have reached out to their co-located or district partners to work together. When Joel Klein put on an event to mark the 100th charter school to be approved in New York City a few years ago, he chose Brooklyn Charter School to host. The principal, Omi Escayg, asked the co-located principal of P.S. 23K to attend the event, and to stand up and receive a standing ovation from the charter school crowd for her support in their collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship.

Members of the media like to portray the angry fights, but this example is the tip of a very collaborative iceberg. At Harlem Link, we have a supportive co-location, with four other school sharing our campus. Three are district schools, including a District 75 school site. We have found ways to work together with, and learn from, each of them.

Claim 11: Charters are all part of cold, businesslike networks that don’t care about communities
It’s true that something like half of charters in NYC are members of networks—contracting with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) like Uncommon Schools or the Success network, or Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) like Victory Schools or even Edison Schools. But that doesn’t preclude individual schools from interacting with community institutions and members of the community at large.

It seems to us that some charters (like us – see the word “link” in our name, and the many charters with the word “community” in their names) make a point in their mission statements and practices of working to establish community ties and to use community resources to support their aims. In our view, choosing not to do so is not very different from district schools shutting out members of the community and erecting signs like “No Parents Allowed Past This Point,” which proliferate in underserved communities like Harlem.

Claim 12: Charter leaders make more money than the chancellor
While some charter school leaders (particularly those who head networks of upwards of two dozen schools) earn salaries that look like they belong to a lower tier executive of a Fortune 500 company, most of us labor in the shadow of our schools’ meager resources. Remember: $13,527 per child is not a lot of money.

Here’s one point about the stratospheric salaries of some charter network leaders. They bring resources to public education. You can’t tell us that New York City does not benefit from the 500-seat building built with private resources for Harlem Village Academies Charter Schools, led by Deborah Kenny, whose compensation is one of the most oft-cited examples of excessiveness. Taxpayers should be thanking Ms. Kenny for bringing in the resources to build a presumably state-of-the-art building with those seats that would otherwise not be available for low income New York City students.

At Harlem Link, we have a fair compensation program in place, but no one is confusing any of our employees or school leaders with Bill Gates.

Claim 13: Charters are seen as a silver bullet
Anyone who thinks this is true is probably not fully engaged in the fight to eradicate educational inequity. Charters are only part of the complicated answer to our shared problems. On our Bank Street panel, you will find three people who have founded charter schools, but you will not find one who believes this claim is true.

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