April 7, 2009
At today’s education committee hearing, City Council members took turns questioning Department of Education officials on the rise of charters schools. Their questions were passionate, specific, and universally accusatory. They may have also been scripted.
Just before the hearing began, a representative of the city teachers union, which describes itself as in favor of charter schools, discreetly passed out a set of index cards to Council members, each printed with a pre-written question.
One batch of cards offered questions for the Department of Education, all of them challenging the proliferation of charter schools. “Doesn’t the Department have a clear legal and moral responsibility to provide every family in the city guaranteed seats for their children in a neighborhood elementary school?” one card suggested members ask school officials. “Isn’t the fundamental problem here the Department’s abdication of its most important responsibility to provide quality district public schools in all parts of the city?” another card said. (View more of the cards in a slideshow here.)
Several council members picked up on the line of thought. “Shouldn’t we aspire to have every school in the city good enough for parents to feel comfortable sending their children?” Melinda Katz, a Council member from Queens, said in questioning school officials. “I remember when Joel Klein became the chancellor,” the committee chair, Robert Jackson, said. “Back then, he used to talk about making every neighborhood school a good school where every parent would want to send their children. I don’t hear him talk about that anymore.”
Asked about the cards, union president Randi Weingarten provided a statement saying that she regretted the tactic. “We are often asked by the council for information and ideas about various issues. Additionally, when I am available, I often respond to what others testify to. In this instance, I was in Washington and couldn’t be at City Hall,” she said in the statement. “I am proud of the testimony we gave today, but I regret the manner in which our other concerns were shared.”
The questions were in line with testimony presented by the union’s vice president, Leo Casey, who said that charter schools can be positive laboratories for innovation — provided that they serve the same students as traditional public schools, that they are held accountable, that their teachers are unionized, and that they don’t replace traditional public schools. The union runs two charter schools and represents teachers at several others. But Casey said that those schools are living examples of how the model can be done right.
Charter school expansion “must be combined with, not come at the expense of, the reinvigoration and improvement of neighborhood public schools,” Casey said in his prepared testimony. “It’s time to put the public back into ‘public charter school.’”
Another question passed out by the union suggested that council members ask school officials about the percentage of students at charter schools who receive special education services, another theme Casey’s testimony addressed. Two separate officials brought up the question: Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and Domenic Recchia, Jr., of Brooklyn. (A department official, Christopher Cerf, acknowledged that charter schools have smaller proportions of English language learner students and of special education students than traditional public schools.)
Another batch of index cards, titled “QUESTIONS FOR LEO,” suggested friendly questions for a vice president of the teachers union, Leo Casey. One card suggested Council members ask about the union’s work with a Los Angeles-based group, Green Dot, to start a unionized charter school in the South Bronx. Another suggested that Council members ask Casey about the union’s work with teachers at a KIPP charter school who have asked to form a union.
A council member of Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, showed me the cards as the union passed them out — arousing uneasiness amongst a lineup of teachers union officials who sat in one of the room’s front rows. (Department of Education officials took up a front row on another side of the room.)