New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) speaks at a rally in support of charter schools on the steps of the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in 2014. (Tim Roske/AP)

In New York state, most teachers of publicly funded schools have to be certified through a state-run process. Now, that may change.

Many of the state’s publicly funded charter schools may soon have the right to certify their own teachers with their own processes. (In some states, charter school teachers don’t have to be certified at all.)

The specific proposal is being considered by the board of trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) and a decision will be made shortly. The trustees oversee the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes a good number of charter school operators in the state, including the well-known Success Academies charter network.

New York charter leaders, some of whom have been pushing for the right to certify their own teachers for a long time, argue that it will help them solve teacher shortages and give them more flexibility over whom to hire.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, which supervises public education in the state, said in an interview that while she supports alternative routes to teacher certification, she opposes the proposal. One reason, she said, is that teachers certified by individual charter schools will not be considered certified in any other public school in the state, and, she said, would be trapped. She also said charter schools have more of a problem with retaining teachers than with attracting them. The Regents, however, have no operational authority over the SUNY board as it makes policy for the charter schools it authorizes.

This post, which takes a tough look at the SUNY proposal, was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has chronicled problems with standardized-test based school reform and the school choice movement on this blog for years.

Following Burris’s piece is a response from Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter School Institute, to a question I posed about why the proposal was being considered and whether it was a statement on the New York state’s teacher certification process. There is also a statement from a Success Academies spokesman about how they train their teachers now.

By Carol Burris

One of the chief criticisms of charter schools is that policy around charters is often made based not on the best interest of students, but based on the best interest of politicians. It is well known, for example, that members of the Florida legislature profit from charters even as they create charter school policy that gives them further financial advantage. Members of the Ohio legislature have been accused repeatedly of blocking attempts to end charter abuses in that state because of alleged “pay to play” politics.

The issue of big charter money is now front and center in New York, where the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), who are nearly all political appointees, have proposed a policy for charters that flies in the face of logic.  The board wants a fast-track charter school teacher certification that would allow charter teachers to skip nearly all of the professional demands of TeachNY, the teacher certification requirements they approved less than two months ago.

These two sets of teaching standards, one for public schools and another for charter schools, could not be further apart. SUNY’s requirements call for clinical experiences that are “diverse and immersive, ideally over a full school year.” The SUNY-proposed regulation for charter schools, in contrast, is less than three weeks (100 hours) of field experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher who may even be uncertified herself.

SUNY’s TeachNY requires the development of “candidates’ deep content and pedagogical knowledge and skills, scaffolding learning throughout the curriculum (including foundational courses offered by community colleges) and access to laboratories in which candidates can practice their skills as educators, prior to and concurrent with clinical practica in P-12 schools.”

For charter schools, SUNY would require only 30 hours of instruction delivered by a teacher who holds a master’s degree. Possible course instructors include uncertified teachers whose students got good scores on state tests. (Yes, that nuttiness is written into the regulation.) The 30 hours do not even have to be “real” hours — SUNY’s proposed regulation defines an instructional hour as at least 50 minutes. Instruction can even be provided via video, as long as there is some face-to-face time.

Why would the SUNY Board, within a matter of two months, propose two sets of dramatically different standards?

New York State charter school authorization

There are two ways that charter schools can be authorized and renewed in New York State. The first is through the Board of Regents. Members of the Board of Regents are chosen by the Assembly, which is traditionally controlled by the Democrats. The second is through the SUNY Charter School Institute, which is controlled by the SUNY Board of Trustees. The SUNY board has 18 members, 15 of whom are appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate, which is presently under Republican control.

Four of the 18 members, all appointed by the governor, form the board’s Charter Schools Committee. Three are lawyers and the fourth is a CEO. The chairman of the committee, Joseph Belluck, is a trial lawyer who has contributed over $152,700 to the successful gubernatorial campaigns of Andrew M. Cuomo, a charter supporter.

Let’s look at the confluence of Cuomo-appointed SUNY board members to large contributions of charter boards to Cuomo’s campaigns[1].

The corporation with the largest number of charter schools under the control of the SUNY Charter School Institute is the Success Academy charter chain, run by Eva Moskowitz.  Her political action committee, the Great Public Schools PAC, contributed $65,000 to Cuomo in 2011-2012 and another $50,000 to date in 2017. Success Academy Chairman Daniel Loeb, founder and chief executive of Third Rock Capital, and his wife, have directly contributed over $133,000 to Cuomo. Since 2015, Loeb has added $300,000 to Moskowitz’s PAC, and another $270,000 to other PACs that support Cuomo. That’s more than $700,000.

Other Success Academy present or former board member families who contributed over $100,000 either directly to, or to PACS, supporting Cuomo include: Andrew and Dana Stone ($280,000), Bruce Kovner ($130,000); Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($280,000), John and Regina Scully of California ($110,000), John Petry ($130,000) and Daniel Nir and his wife Jill Braufman ($152,500). An additional nine other Success Academy Board members, including three who live outside New York state, collectively contributed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly to Cuomo. Most of the contributions are direct donations.

The Success Board is only one example of many. Paul Tudor Jones is the founder of Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford Stuyvesant, which is also authorized by the SUNY Charter Board. He and his wife, who both live in Connecticut, contributed $400,000,  with most of the contributions going into PACs that gave to the governor. Even the charter-loving Waltons, who don’t live in New York, have jumped in — nearly $100,000 in direct contributions to Cuomo and over $100,000 into PACs. And it doesn’t end there. Charter board members from the Harlem Children’s Zone to Hebrew Academy Charter Schools contribute large sums of money to Cuomo.

In March 2014 a few months before his election, Cuomo addressed an Albany crowd behind a banner that proclaimed #ChartersWork.

Why do charter chains like Success want to control teacher certification?

Most certified teachers prefer to get jobs in public schools that offer better benefits and working conditions than charters. For example, Success teachers complain on blogs and  job satisfaction websites about the culture and working conditions in Success schools.  And as the economy improves, fewer young people are going into teaching. In New York, teachers were, for four years, under constant fire from the governor and his unfair and invalid teacher evaluation system, known as APPR. This created a drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Finally, most charters need a continuous supply of teachers because of  teacher churn.

In an opinion piece entitled “Turnover, a Charter School Plague,” New York Daily News editorial board member, Alysa Katz, tells how she moved her own daughter from a charter school to a New York City public school in reaction the charter school’s “whirlwind of teachers who would stay a year and move on.” Her own child’s fifth-grade teacher left for a  position in a suburban school a few months into the year. Katz laments the instability associated with charters, noting that the turnover rate in some Success charters approaches 60 percent.

Six Success Academy Charter Schools had turnover rates that exceeded 50 percent in 2015-16, including Success Academy Harlem 5 that had a turnover rate of 65 percent. Children’s Aide Charter School, another SUNY charter, had a 92 percent turnover rate that year. Six SUNY charter schools had turnover rates that exceed 70 percent. To put this instability in perspective, the average overall rate for New York State public schools is 11 percent.

And that is why eyebrows were raised when the SUNY regulation included a caveat that this “special certification” could only be used in SUNY authorized charter schools. “It’s certainly not our intention to create a class of indentured servants who can’t move from one school to another,”  Belluck told the New York Times. Intended or not, that would be the outcome.

This is not the first time the SUNY board has come under fire for its cozy relationship with charter schools. In 2009, Merryl Tisch, then Board of Regents chancellor and a strong charter advocate, sought to strip them of their power to authorize charters in New York City because they put the desires of charter schools before the interests of the community. In 2010, she again took up the battle when charters were approved by SUNY after the Board of Regents expressed concerns.

By 2012, Pedro Noguera, New York University professor of education and then SUNY board member, announced that he was quitting the SUNY Board because he was troubled by the kinds of charters that were being approved, as well as by where they were being placed. When Success Academy was approved to open a charter in affluent Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Noguera said, “that was the last straw” and resigned.  Noguera told WNYC’s Anna Phillips that charters were being approved, in part “for political purposes.”

In 2014, one month before Cuomo’s reelection, as money was pouring in from charter boards, SUNY approved 17 charters, including 14 new charters for Success Academy, even engaging in a last minute switch in location.

Now the SUNY Board is on the verge of creating a two-tier system that would further the already inequitable treatment of children in New York State. The idea that the board would create a teacher certification program that would credential the teachers of the mostly black and brown students who attend charter schools in a matter of weeks, while insisting on years of training for the teachers of the rest of New York students is morally troubling.

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for charter schools to attract and retain teachers. They are presently allowed an uncertified teacher rate of 30 percent. The solution, however, is not to lower certification standards even more, but for charter schools to attract and retain teachers by improving working conditions so that teachers want to stay. Such changes would be in the best interest of charter school students, as opposed to a fast-track certification that is in the best interest of those who so generously give to the governor’s campaigns.

The public has about one month in which to comment before the regulations are finalized by four men led by Cuomo appointee and donor Joseph Belluck.

[1] Contribution information can be found here: http://www.elections.ny.gov/contribandexpend.html

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Here’s a comment from SUNY Charter institute Executive Director Susie Miller Carello in response to a query about why it is considering changing the certification process for charter school teachers, and if the decision to review teacher qualifications in charters is a reflection on the New York State teacher certification process.

No, our decision to review teacher requirements at the charter school level, is in no way a reflection of New York State’s system. It is instead a proposal to address a need that our schools have long identified; placing a high quality teacher in every classroom is a challenge not only for SUNY authorized charters, but for all public schools.  The best definitions of high quality teachers center on how well students who spend a year with that teacher grow in their abilities and confidence to read, write, know history, mathematics, science and the arts.  80% of students attending SUNY charters are economically disadvantaged.  More than 80% of  SUNY charters outperform the districts in which they are located. Should any SUNY charter have the opportunity to establish a SUNY charter school teacher certification program, the strength of such a program will directly link to how well students perform. In considering the draft regulations, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute and the SUNY Trustees Charter Schools Committee will be sure the regulations do not sacrifice quality and they will be consistent with SUNY’s rigorous standards for teacher certification.

And here is a comment from Nicole Sizemore, a spokeswoman for the Success Academies, about the teacher training the network now does:

We provide extensive training to our teachers and principals, starting with several weeks of intensive summer training and continuing all year with weekly professional development, the equivalent of 13 weeks for both new and returning teachers. Our adult curriculum includes more than 300 courses, on everything from project-based learning and shared text to number stories and inquiry-based science; classroom management is one aspect, but the primary focus is on content and progressive pedagogy.