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10th February
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, February 10, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Advocates of more charter schools in Gotham got what could be good news this week with the announcement that Governor Pataki will include in his budget authorization for the city to establish another 50 such schools.

I say that this could be good news, because merely establishing a new charter school does not guarantee a happy outcome.A number of the first charters have already been closed by the State, and I suspect that the decertification of charter schools will begin to accelerate as they proliferate. It isn’t the structure of a school that creates success, but what and how the children are taught.
This is the underlying reason for the failure of American schools, and failure will not be minimized until this problem is adequately addressed. That’s why I suggest that the powersthat-be commit that of the 50 new charters, half follow a well-regarded alternative in American education, the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Focusing on instructional approaches is the real opportunity presented by the expansion charters. This is why I suggest that the governor and legislature reject the idea that the new schools be created through the office of the New York City schools chancellor, whoever he or she may be, now or in the future. This goes against the core concept of the charter school movement, which is to provide choice through competition. In a free market competition develops naturally; it is not chosen by those being competed with.

Having the chancellor choose the schools that will compete with his schools is akin to allowing Microsoft to regulate the manufacture of computer software. It would not be surprising to then find that the only operating system that our computers would run would be the one from which William Gates makes his fortune. It is competition from other operating systems, such as Apple’s, that forces Mr. Gates to upgrade his product to remain viable against a technically superior alternative. I know this is an analogy that the current chancellor can appreciate.

A better model would have new charters granted by one of the state boards currently empowered, either the Board of Regents or State University of New York trustees. Alternatively, the City University board of trustees could be granted this authority.

Here is how we can really revolutionize the way school business is conducted through charters. We would not only address the needs of the so-called “failing” schools in the poorest neighborhoods, but the quiet crisis in confidence in the city’s middle class enclaves.To the detriment of the city, the exodus from many outer borough neighborhoods due to school related issues has continued, indeed in some cases accelerated, under mayoral control.

The chancellor already has the power, totally unexercised, to grant well over a thousand new charters. This is through the conversion of existing public schools into charter schools.This power has not been used largely because the current law throws too many roadblocks up against such conversions. One of these impediments is mandating that charter conversions maintain the current union contract. A better strategy would be to leave that decision to the staff, who may prefer a different contract — with or without the union — more appropriate to the particular situation in the new school.As painful as this may be for many charter advocates, it seems unlikely to me that the charters will be able to avoid union representation in New York City for any significant period of time.

One of the current requirements for conversion is that an absolute majority of the current parents approve the change in status. But parent involvement with education is at an all-time low. Chancellor Harold Levy discovered this when he tried to bring in the Edison Schools company to run five of the worst performing schools in the city. Under pressure from the leftwing activist group ACORN, Mr. Levy decided to interpret the law to include this experiment: calling an election at the five schools to either accept or reject turning over the administration of each school to Edison. Despite a huge effort by Edison and ACORN to mobilize parents on both sides of the issue, a majority of parents didn’t bother to vote at all.

Were this rule changed to permit approval by a majority of those voting, rather than an absolute majority of all parents,we would not let the future of all our students be compromised in the same way that lack of involvement by some parents diminishes opportunity for their own children.

In addition, we need to explicitly permit current zoned schools to convert partially to charter status while still retaining their status as neighborhood schools, the historic cornerstone of educational success in our city. Parents at these zoned schools would be given a choice, within the same building, between a charter offering an instructional alternative, such as Core Knowledge, and the “regular” school, presumably using the “progressive” pedagogy mandated by Tweed.

After the program takes hold, it may be that one alternative would drive out the other in the same way better products beat out inferior ones in the marketplace. Or perhaps both would co-exist in perpetuity,each looking to do better against a rival that is serving the same population of children, just across the corridor. Real competition for the real world of Gotham’s schools.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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