After 15 rocky years, NYC’s teacher union no longer wants to run a charter school

A charter school operated by New York City’s teacher union doesn’t want to be a charter school anymore.

The UFT Charter High School in Brooklyn is seeking to morph into a traditional district school, officials said Friday, a highly unusual maneuver that would end a long-running political bet that the union could run a successful charter school of its own.

“Our students, parents and teachers love their high school, and are proud of the individualized support our school gives our students, but they have told us that they want to be a part of a broader community,” United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

Union officials said the transition, which will require city approval, would give the school access to additional resources such as advanced placement courses, sports teams, and dual-language programs.

The union’s interest in giving up its sole charter school makes sense politically. Charter schools have increasingly fallen out of favor with Democrats and have come under more scrutiny from the Trump administration. Union officials are also routinely critical of the sector, a position in tension with running a charter of their own.

Most importantly, the UFT’s charter school has struggled to prove its original point: that charter schools didn’t need independence from unions to thrive. The school was set up to “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” said then-UFT President Randi Weingarten when the school was originally conceived in 2005. (Weingarten now helms the national American Federation of Teachers.)

The East New York school was initially designed to serve students in grades K-12, but never found solid footing. It became one of the city’s lowest-performing schools and officials closed its elementary and middle school in 2015, an embarrassing setback.

The high school, by contrast, has been more successful. About 79% of students graduate on time, slightly above the city average. The State University of New York, the school’s authorizer, gave it a five-year renewal in 2017, finding that the school is “an academic success.”

Still, union officials may be eager to get out from under SUNY’s microscope. The school has struggled in some key areas, including meeting its enrollment targets. City data show the school enrolls a lower percentage of students with disabilities and English learners than the city average, a common critique of charters (though the school tends to retain those students). About half of the school’s students are chronically absent, meaning they miss at least 10% of the school year.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, suggested the union may be looking to avoid strict oversight. “If Mulgrew thinks the district is the better, and perhaps more forgiving model, for operating a public school, I would hope that he would support the creation of a high-quality new charter school in its place,” he said. 

Danielle Goodwin joined the union’s school as a guidance counselor in 2008. She said the proposal to become a district school “wasn’t an overnight decision” and being able to take more advantage of the district’s resources would be a plus.

Asked whether the conversion to a district school would amount to relinquishing the argument that the union could run a successful charter, she said: “We’ve always wanted what’s the best for the students — the contract didn’t necessarily get in our way.”

The process for transitioning from a charter to district school will require a vote from the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which signs off on proposals to create new district schools. Education department officials said they support the proposal, all but guaranteeing it will be approved.

“We’re excited to work with the UFT Charter community to help students at this school have the opportunity to attend a new DOE district high school that will enjoy the supports and resources that all of our district schools have,” said Katie O’Hanlon, a department spokesperson.

In addition to the UFT Charter High School, the union represents teachers at 24 other city charters, union officials said, a small slice of the city’s 260 current charter schools.

If the union’s proposal to convert the school to be a traditional district school is approved, the school’s charter would become what’s known as a “zombie” charter — meaning it would return to a pool of previously issued charters.

While New York City has hit the cap on the number of new charters that can be issued, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed allowing those “zombie” charters to be reissued, a move that would require approval from the legislature — and is far from certain.

A SUNY spokesperson said they had not yet received an official proposal from the union, but would review it when it’s submitted.