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Charter challenge

A teachers’ union in New York sues to stop a competitor


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I’ve never been quite sure what I think of charter schools. Sometimes I think they’re our friends. And sometimes I’m irked by their opportunistic claims.

Charter schools are a sort of hybrid of public and private schools. They are independently run public schools that are granted greater flexibility in their operations in exchange for greater accountability with reference to student performance. The “charter” by which each school is established is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.

Included in all that would be details of the school’s goals in whatever field it chooses to operate. Within a couple of miles of my home, for example, one charter school is dedicated to helping students study the arts. Another has environmentalism as its main focus. A new charter school has only to pick a particular specialty (but not a religious one!) then demonstrate that it can serve students well in that specialty, and that it can sustain such a program year after year.

The labor union is not arguing that the quality of learning will suffer with a new charter school, but that the number is too high.

That’s the raw material for the “charter.” All this goes (with documentation, of course!) to a state agency for approval, revision, or rejection. That agency is key. It may be made up of state legislators, a commission of the state department of education, or a body of retired schoolteachers, for that matter—the actual structure differs widely from state to state.

Schools that gain approval from the state agency become eligible for annual subsidies for each student they enroll. It’s that claim on the public purse that raises concerns. Those subsidies, from the same state source that supports traditional public schools, are supposed to be equal, on a per student basis, to what the state pays per student to the traditional schools.

Charter schools are indeed public schools—but are schools of choice by parents—meaning that families choose these schools for their children. The schools operate with much freedom from many of the regulations typically imposed on traditional schools. But charter schools are accountable for academic results and for upholding the promises made in their charters. If a charter school falls short of its performance goals, the state may close it—and every year, that happens to a handful of charter schools.

But charter schools throughout the nation face even sharper hostility. Labor unions funded by public school teachers are a case in point. The United Federation of Teachers is currently suing in New York City to stop Vertex Academies from opening a new charter high school in a poor neighborhood where academic performance in the public schools is dismal. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the region being discussed, only 7 percent of students entering ninth grade are ready for college four years later.

But New York severely limits the number of charter schools—whether the applications of new charters reflect excellent qualifications or not. The UFT calls the new charter school “a clear end run” around New York’s cap on charters. “Once again,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in a statement, “the charter sector is acting as if the rules don’t apply to them.” In other words, the labor union is not arguing that the quality of learning will suffer with a new charter school, but that the number of schools like Vertex is already too high.

Ironically, Vertex Academies has contracted to lease the long-shuttered school buildings of the Blessed Sacrament School, a part of the broad system of Roman Catholic schools that served New York for many years. Valedictorian of the Class of 1968 was Sonia Sotomayor, who later became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

It would be nice if that historic school could make a little history by becoming a site where educational choice got another chance.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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