A guide to state lawmakers’ final deal, in which NYC charters emerge as only big winners

As most education groups expressed mild enthusiasm for the end-of-session legislative deal, New York City’s charter school sector looked to be the only clear winner.

Not only does the deal double the number of new charter schools that can open in New York City, from 25 to 50, it also allows them to go through the preferred authorizer of the city’s influential charter school networks. Last-minute changes to teacher certification requirements and enrollment policies further cemented the victory.

The legislation passed in the Senate, 47-12, and in the Assembly, 112-13, and now heads to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for his approval. The tumultuous session officially came to a close after midnight Friday when the Assembly concluded.

We reviewed the bill, introduced just hours before lawmakers were set to vote on it late Thursday night, for the education-related changes. They include new review requirements for state test questions and a short renewal of mayoral control, summarized below.

Charter schools

Fifty additional charter schools will be allowed to open in New York City, up from 25. Applicants for those charters can apply either through the State University of New York or the Board of Regents. Previously, 24 of the 25 available city-designated charters were controlled by the Regents, which supervises the State Education Department.

Lifting that restriction is a big deal because SUNY previously had just one charter left to issue in New York City. As an authorizer, SUNY is regarded as having stricter and more consistent standards and has increasingly favored operators who are replicating schools. It has become the chosen regulator of the city’s large charter school networks like Success Academy, whose schools are uniformly authorized by SUNY.

The bill makes two other changes to the charter school law. The first allows charter schools to employ a significantly larger share of teachers who aren’t certified under the state standards for district school teachers. State teacher certification standards are in the process of changing, and vary based by grade level and subject. But all district teachers must complete credits at an accredited institution and take a series of certification tests.

The previous maximum was five teachers per school. Now, schools can employ an additional 10 uncertified teachers of any subject, five of whom must be teachers of science, technology, or career and technical education subjects. Those teachers still must still meet certain other criteria, such as have previous teaching experience or “exceptional” experience in other professional fields.

The second change allows charter schools to give the children of staff who work for the school or its support network a preference in admissions lotteries. Children of staff could not constitute more than 15 percent of a school’s total enrollment.

Their last-minute inclusion shows just how dramatically the political dynamics have changed in New York State government. In the past, teachers unions were the groups helping lawmakers introduce last-minute changes to bills they were lobbying for or against, but they were unable to do so this time around. The bill does not add any new requirements related to enrolling high-needs students or scrutinizing the finances of charter school networks, which Assembly Democrats had proposed.

“Thankfully, Albany leaders understand that charter schools play a critical role in the delivery of free, public education in New York,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, whose spending in last year’s state elections helped keep Republicans in control of the State Senate.

The charter school law already requires that charters give preferences to siblings of children already at a school and to students who live in the district where the school is located.

State tests

Starting next year, the state education commissioner must release the questions and answers from the state’s annual English and math tests for grades three through eight by July 1.

It’s not clear how much the law will actually change the state’s current policies, however. The department had already announced it would release questions and answers by July 1 of this year, and the commissioner still won’t have to release all test items. The state will be allowed to limit the release to “avoid hindering or impairing the validity and/or reliability of future examinations,” which is the rationale that the state already has cited for not releasing all exam questions. (The state released about half of the test’s questions and answers last year.)

This year, the state will also have to release the “general student success rate in answering such questions correctly” on the tests by July 1.

Teachers, principals and district administrators will no longer be required to sign a confidentiality agreement requiring them not to discuss the contents of the exam. But they will still have to wait until the test questions are released to the public.

The legislature will provide the department with $8.4 million to cover costs associated with releasing the test items. That’s a budget request that the Board of Regents has made, unsuccessfully, for the last two years.

The State Education Department is now also required to establish a committee that must annually review “all standardized test items” and passages from the English and math tests. The state already has a review committee, but the law requires the group to look out for a few specific things, including whether the questions are “grade level appropriate.”

Mayoral control

The law giving New York City’s mayor control over its school system now expires June 30, 2016. Mayor Bill de Blasio was hoping for at least a three-year extension.

He avoided other changes that could have weakened his power, like changes to the Panel for Educational Policy or checks on the city’s education spending. That relieved some, with Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, saying that the coalition of business leaders she represents was glad the initial agreement reflected “an undiluted extension of mayoral control.”

Teacher evaluations

The legislation includes new language requiring the state’s methodology for evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores to include “consideration” of high-need student groups, including students with disabilities, low-income students, and English language learners. Those characteristics are already factored into the state’s current methodology, but the legislation cements that approach into law.

The bill does not extend the deadline for school districts to develop new teacher-evaluation systems, which the Senate and Assembly had both pushed for after widespread criticism from districts. That means the process agreed to by the Board of Regents earlier this month stands, and districts will have to apply for waivers to be exempt from the November deadline.

Correction: A previous version misstated the number of uncertified teachers that a charter school can employ.