Stonewalling charters in New York

Fighting to retain New York’s cap on charter schools and hit by two different studies (Hoxby and CREDO) showing higher performance for New York City’s charter students, the United Federation of Teachers has issued a “Separate But Equal” report complaining that charters enroll fewer poor, non-fluent and special-education students (and more blacks) than district-run schools.

Urban parents value quality schools more than integrated schools, writes RiShawn Biddle on National Review Online. Blacks, in particular, look to charter schools to provide a better option for their children, even if the local charter is nearly all black.

In Stonewalling Charters, researcher Marcus A. Winters notes that Caroline Hoxby’s study didn’t compare charter students to all district students. It compared apples to apples.

All students who apply for seats in an oversubscribed charter school—which describes nearly every charter in New York City—must enter a lottery for admission. Hoxby’s study compares the achievement of lottery winners and lottery losers. If the pool of applicants is big enough—as is the case in New York City—the laws of probability ensure that the group of students randomly selected to attend a charter school is essentially identical to the group that lost the lottery.

When English Learners and disabled students enter lotteries, they’re as likely to win a place as other students, Winters writes. Apparently, parents of these students are more satisfied with their neighborhood schools or less attracted to charters with a strong academic focus.

The CREDO study used a different methodology, comparing charter students with demographic “twins” in nearby district-run schools. Again it found charter students made greater gains in reading and math compared to similar students.

UFT is pushing charter-crushing “reforms,” writes Thomas Carroll on NY Ed Reform Blog. These include mandatory unionization of charter schools, mandatory payment of union wages on construction contracts (even though the state doesn’t fund construction for charters) and “admissions quotas for charter schools that would mandate that each school enroll at all times exactly the percentage of special-education students, free-lunch students, and English language learners as does the local district average (although no such requirement applies to district schools, whose school-by-school numbers vary widely).”

A small, mission-driven charter school may not serve every type of student equally well. I wrote a book, Our School, about a college-prep charter school that enrolls more than its share of students with “learning disabled” and other special-education labels; students disproportionately come from low-income Mexican immigrant families. Parents of honor roll students are warned that the school is not designed for high achievers’ needs.

In a good school, fewer students fall behind and are classified as “learning disabled.” I worked on a Center on Reinventing Public Education study of special education in charter schools and visited schools that work intensively with kindergarteners to solve learning problems before they become labeled disabilities or transition students out of special education. I’ve also seen intensive instruction move students more quickly out of the English Learner category. I’d hate to see schools required to label students when it’s not necessary.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I am sorry but I just don’t understand unions — they cry and moan when someone/something is better than they are. Why do they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a better way of doing things? Why are they not pushing to be the leader, capture best practices, see what works elsewhere and implement it? Why would they want to maintain the status quo or worse? Oh yeah…because they are not professional…

    Come on teachers…you all are much much better than your union leadership…take charge…put the students first…the kids always lose when the adults are the focus…i thought education was about doing what was right for the students to excel to their maximum potential — always!

    What am I missing…

  2. What is it about charters that you think makes such a difference?

    Is the some magic in being a charter school? Or do you mean small, new and mission-driven schools? Because there are lots of small, new and mission-driven schools that are NOT charter schools, especially in New York City.

    So, the real question should be “What makes the schools that these students attend outperform the students that those students attend?”* Is it the charterness? Something that is only possible with charter shcools, or something that happens to be more common among the charter schools than among the schools that those other students attend.

    (*Of course, we should also make sure that the performance measure we are basing these judgements on is properly indicative what we want our public schools to do for kids and, communities and society.)

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    I believe charter schools have strong discipline than default er zoned schools. I believe with the discipline and additional hours/tutoring required/offered at the charters it enables the students to step up — get caught up and surpass the performance of their peers in the default schools.

    I believe with stronger discipline from day one in the default schools and the same tutoring opportunities the default schools would have much better results.

    In our city the students entering the KIPP middle school are one to two years below their grade level (5th grade). Yet the first graduating class excelled and the kids did not want to go back to their default schools are they were not strong enough academically or safe enough. About half of the students went to private schools. I hope the rest got into the academic magnets or the IP programs.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with this year’s 8th grade class and if the results are the same. I do know my district has not improved the default high schools over the past six years so these kids would willing go to them. Very, very sad.

    If the default schools got creative and educated the kids from where the are not where they are suppose to be I believe you would see results similar to the charter schools. Yes, discipline needs to be tighter and enforced. The environment needs to be welcoming and parental envolvement encouraged rather than discouraged.

    There are countless challenges throughout government schools due to the deterioration of the culture from which the students come. This cultural issues do need to be address. It is not all on the teachers shoulders But…I believe educators working together can push for the improvements they need to have in their default/zoned school in order to best educate the children.

    I do not think the union thinks this way. They are too self centered and just want the dues to keep rolling in. There are other options than unions…

  4. Tim, I don’t think you’re missing a thing. You have got the Union leadership pegged. They don’t want to work with reformers. Union leaders seem dead set on fighting them at every turn. The Union’s way or you’re trying top destroy our ed. system.

    We’ve seen that sort of thing in Maine. I am highly critical of the MEA leaders. They only hear what they want to and are completely out of touch with reality. They have fought just about any changes to the system, good or bad. It is sad how damaging the leaders are to students and teachers in Maine. If you are critical of them at all they just say you are trashing them and proceed to ignore what you say. It isn’t about the students for them. That is what worries me the most.

  5. john thompson says:


    You correctly write, “A small, mission-driven charter school may not serve every type of student equally well.” And you would have been equally right in saying that they shouldn’t have to, and usually they don’t.

    Were we to recognize those realities we wouldn’t have to (or get to) fight so much with each other.

    Regular schools have to serve all comers at the same time. That’s why school systems don’t let us enforce discipline. If you want common sense reality-based policies, such as credible assessment of disciplinary policies, join with us in the union. And if you want sustainable charters, at least give us a listen.

  6. And some day the lion will lay down with the lamb but that scenario presupposes divine intervention. Until that happens my money’s on the lamb showing up the next day as a pile of lion droppings.

    The union antipathy towards charters is understandable both because charters represent a departure from the comfortable and lucrative status quo and because, by their nature, charters are rather more likely to put emphasis on education then districts and thus be less willing to compromise on considerations that compromise educational quality like union resistance to canning a lousy teacher.

  7. Joanne,

    I couldn’t agree more with you on that last paragraph. We need to teach students–not label them as ‘learning disabled.’ That’s what response to intervention is all about and what good schools, including charter schools, do. Why would anyone try to interfere with excellence in teaching and schools that promote excellence? Why? It surely beats me.

  8. I have worked at a union school and a non-union charter. The main difference is that the charter school is able innovate. At the union school innovations would start, but never succeed. There was always a union boss blocking any true reforms.
    The union’s has two main goals; the first is to make sure that teachers work as little as possible, the second is to collect as many dues as possible. In most school districts teachers are forced to pay dues to the local union, even if they do not join the union. You can be excused from paying dues to the NEA, but you will forfeit your liability insurance.

  9. Miriam,

    A great thing about these blogs is following coomenters’ link. I noted your website which says:

    “I taught in public schools in a simpler era, when the threat of lawsuits didn’t color my every lesson. We may not be able to return to those days. But together we can become more savvy to promote education reform, to understand the laws, prevent lawsuits, work toward positive changes for our schools, and return to the mission of educating our children.

    Join us in transforming special education and returning educators and parents to the mission of educating all students. It is time!”

    In my experience, the problem isn’t the special ed law per se, its the law where you have concentrations of special ed and other at-risk kids. When 40% of an inner city secondary school is on IEPs, the administration becomes overwhelmed. Of my 175 or students I’ve had this year, about 115 are on IEPs, ELL, or have severe physical and/or mental illness. With the kids now returning from Long Term Suspension, with no transition services, my afternoon classes of 33 or so have 20 or kids who are extremely at risk (not a reading disability but usually complex behavior and emotional problems)

    Since, they teach kids in lockup to not confront teachers but to walk out to a counselor, we have institutionalized that. The principals tell all of their kids to “just remove themselves from the situation” when they don’t like instructions like, “please take out your earphones,” or “we don’t allow text-messaging in class.” So, we already have a new batch of hall-walkers and kids waiting for hours to see principals when they really just need to talk to a counselor.

    We had an asst. principal get fed up with the district’s interpretation of IDEA that students on IEPs could not be Long Term Suspended for a knife if the blade was shorter than 21/2 inches. It turns out that that isn’t even in our education law. But as the district’s attorney told me, they don’t want principals pursuing suspensions over that sort of thing because they have no confidence that overwhelmed schools can do it properly. I guess that’s why our repeat offender who assaulted a teacher was already back this week after a two day suspension.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    john thompson,

    I’m a high school and one of the things that pisses me off is that my unions don’t fight for “credible … disciplinary policies.” They actually seem to push for the reverse: put everyone in the same class, and have no credible threat that a student can be forced out for bringing the other students down.

  11. Brick: I’m in a right-to-work state. We don’t have to join the union or pay dues. I carry liability on my home owners; it isn’t very expensive.

    (But our pay is low, we’re ranked fairly low in terms of educational quality, no right to strike, etc. I don’t have anything in particular against our union, but don’t see any need to throw money at something that doesn’t really have any power.)

  12. Brick, try for a minute using the words “union lawyers,” who also are Officers of the Court, instead of “union bosses.” You don’t think that union members are horrified by many situations, that they don’t put themselves at risk trying to balance the law with morality, that they don’t try to nurture relationships with overwhelmed administrators in the hopes of liberating students from awful educators? Many times I’ve seen situations like the scene in Fail Safe when the Americans turned over our information to help shoot down our plane that was mistakenly attacking them, but the Soviets mistrusted us too much to use the info.

    That’s why we push so hard for the Toledo plan where the union helps counsel out/terminate 8% to 10% of new teachers and as many ineffective veterans as possible. It is more complicated when disabilities are involved but the problem isn’t the law so much as an overwhelmed system. I’ve worked with dozens of principals and assistant principals. Many were great and only a few were incompetent. But I’ve never met a principal who didn’t go weeks or months at a time without having a chance for classroom matters to enter their consciousness. No matter how you streamline the process, we need to invest a lot more in either hiring and training administrators and/or mentor teacher evaluators. If an AP can’t make it to a few short classroom visits, then the AP can’t make it for a few short visits. Let’s change that situation. (By the way its equally hard to deal with administrators with protected disabilities in our district where their union has no power. Its their personal attorneys that win those cases.)

    Yes, like a commenter wrote previously, our system is like S-CHIP and overwhelmed community health centers, as well as the Public Defender system. We discussed your post at dinner last night with a lawyer who has run community health systems in two other states, and who now is in education. For instance, we want early care for pregnant mothers, but data-driven accountability backfires (centers duck the toughest cases because they are so hard to get them in early) excluding the most vulnerable in the same way that NCLB-type accountability shifted attention and resources away from pre-school.

    Before crack and gangs hit my neighborhood, prompting me to become a teacher, I was writing a legal history. The way our system is supposed to work, prosecutors and public defenders are supposed to have an honorable relationship as they plea bargain 95% of cases. If your word is good, you can better serve society by making better deals. But we also have “persecutors” and we also have defenders who get coopted. The real harm is when the system is overwhelmed – which has usually been the case. (You can read the latest installment of these tragedies in this week’s NY Review of Books. Previously the Review described how you can take at good public defender and corrupt his judgement by overloading him, or transform a bad PD by putting him in a functional system)

    I don’t think the system is hopeless. We get good new educators every year. The problem in the toughest schools is that teachers and administrators get chewed up and spit out faster than we can build new talent. I don’t begrudge the students or educators who get out, and go to charters or less challenging environments. If I hadn’t been 40, with experience with juvenile felons, when I started teaching, I wouldn’t have made it either. We can’t deal with burnouts until we can retain enough talent to replace them. Job #1 for a young teacher in hardcore secondary schools is being a cop, at the time when they should be learning their craft.

    But I don’t deny that I could match the union opponents horror story for horror story, but that would accomplish nothing. We need peer review and to work together.

    And Roger, I understand. Worse, teachers who have found ways to maintain order often take the Ted Williams approach of criticizing fellow teachers. Veterans should do what Williams refused to do, “widen our strike zone,” help other teachers, and lobby for rational enforcement of rules. Many at our school used to try to control the halls, but we all gave up long ago. We long ago closed our doors and allowed anarchy in the halls. I’m one of only two who still teaches with my door open, except when the decibel level is unbelievable. I don’t know what to do but to teach bell to bell, but unless someone sounds like they are getting hurt, it takes a lot of screaming in the hall before I’ll leave my class now.

    But I try to remember that this dysfunctional system is even harder on principals. Somehow we need to work together for political change. Personally, I’d like to see a merger of the teachers and the principals unions so we would have an institution for teamwork.

    And since we’ve become a right-to-work state, we’ve had health care for children levels fall to those of Texas and health outcomes fall to the level of Guatamala. We’re known as the whitest state with social problems like Mississippi, and without unions the handful of progressives and civil rights leaders wouldn’t have used “smoke and mirrors” to create a basic social safety net. Having survived some of the worst political repression in American history, unions were key to addressing some of the worst prisions, orhanages, foster homes, and juvenile systems in America. But under the Republican leadership, made inevitable by right to work, we’re back in the national press for our juvenile prison. Creating a cycle of generational poverty so that 55% of public school students are poor is a great motivation for reforming schools.

  13. Well that was long and, after careful re-reading, completely off topic.

    The topic is the measures unions are using to put a stop to the expansion of charters now that it’s becoming clear that charters are actually the greater threat to the status quo then vouchers.

    To directly contradict you, John the system is hopeless.

    Locally you can have deviations from the norm, exceptionally capable and lucky principals who manage to create an environment in which learning, and thus teaching, are valued but the system itself provides no support for those exceptional individuals. When circumstances dictate their exceptional creations, their good schools, are discarded and outside the schools they turn into educational oasis in the desert of educational neglect that typifies most school districts, their accomplishments are ignored.

    Now it’s becoming clear that these innovations – charters – can’t be ignored and, despite several attempts there doesn’t seem to be any comfortable accommodation for unions within the charter school arena. Not that surprising since from the point of view of a union the public education system exists to pay teachers.

    Charters, by contrast to district schools, live and die based on parental approval.

    Survival dictates focusing on the critical and critical to the survival of charters is doing a good enough job to please parents. Right now that’s relatively easy with the indifference of the school district characterizing the competition but the underlying dynamic doesn’t go away; parents decide. That means that charters are inherently resistant to policies and organizations that have a contradictory priority which describes the union.

    The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the perspective of the union is that if you can’t live with them, or better yet co-opt them, you kill them. But I don’t think the unions will be able to do it.

  14. john- the main focus of your argument seems to be that unions are fighting the good fight working in the system etc.

    The system has failed over and over again. Charter schools were created to offer an alternative- as allen states, “Charters, by contrast to district schools, live and die based on parental approval”. Charter schools are run to meet customer demands. Traditional schools are run to meet the needs of employees.
    Satisfying the customers has two main results; Better teachers and improved resource allocation.

    At the traditional school were I worked we had some fantastic teachers; some of them were in fact national and international award winners. We also had a lot of dead weight- teachers who were counting down to retirement who spent most of the time online. Many had no idea about the subject they were teaching or refused to change with the times. Their students spent most of the day reading a textbook and answering questions or watching videos while their highly paid teacher surfed the net.

    At the charter school the staff is younger and more innovative. Dead weights do not exist- they are fired. Resources are allocated to get the most bang for the buck- rather than an administrators pet project or seniority. Students get a much better education- with more choices and better equipment. Teachers get more collaboration, preparation time and higher income (no costly union dues!).


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