City Council education committee chair Daniel Dromm gave Tuesday’s charter school hearing a splash of color when he donned a bright orange T-shirt and criticized Coney Island Preparatory Charter School’s discipline policy.
The school requires misbehaving students to wear a different uniform and sit separately from their peers—a policy Dromm said represents a larger problem of overly harsh discipline at charter schools.
Discipline was just one of a long list of concerns he and other City Council members raised at Tuesday’s twice-postponed oversight hearing on charter schools. They also addressed charter school policies surrounding enrollment, discipline, parent involvement, interactions with other schools on co-located campuses, teacher retention, and salaries for top officials.
But in part because the city’s largest charter networks didn’t send representatives to the hearing, the toughest questions went to Department of Education officials, whose responses were amicable but firm.
Laura Feijoo, senior superintendent in the department’s Office of School Support, repeatedly reminded council members that the department does not have authority over all city charter schools, only those for which the department was the initial authorizer. (The city stopped serving as an authorizer of new schools in 2010 but still has the authority to approve the renewal or revision of charters it authorized before then.)
In response to questions about discipline policies, Feijoo said that it’s up to charter schools to develop their own policies and share them with parents. But she indicated that the department would review discipline policies at city-authorized schools.
“I promise you I will go back and take a look at those policies and report back to you,” she said.
Feijoo also said the department supports a bill introduced by Councilman Andy King that would require it to release demographic and academic data about all co-located schools, district and charter, on a yearly basis.
Even as City Council members grilled Feijoo and other representatives from the department, many took pains not to antagonize the new administration.
“I acknowledge that you haven’t been in office very long, that much of what is in place comes from the previous administration. We want to be able to give you time to correct some of these situations to the extent that you can,” Dromm said.
The charter school landscape has changed significantly since Dromm first announced plans for the hearing in March, when it looked as if the relative freedom—and free rent—many charter schools had enjoyed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be under threat. Dromm said he was “deeply concerned” about Success Academy’s closure for a rally in Albany and promised to use the council’s oversight powers to investigate the city’s charter sector.
Since then, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise to charge rent to well-heeled charter management organizations earned a sharp rebuke from state lawmakers, who outlawed that possibility in the state budget deal. De Blasio offered private space to three Success Academy schools whose co-locations his administration blocked, and a coalition of “community based” charter schools is now in regular contact with City Hall.
Several of those charter schools’ principals spoke at the hearing, wearing oval stickers identifying them as part of the coalition. After testifying, Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School in Queens, said she was relieved that Dromm didn’t let the hearing “become a circus” given how polarizing conversations about charter schools can be.
Charter leaders whose schools got the most flak from Council members were more critical, though they didn’t attend the hearing. Moskowitz, who held over 100 oversight hearings during her tenure as chair of the City Council’s education committee, released a statement referring to “today’s theatrics.” Jacob Mnookin, who heads Coney Island Prep, called the hearing “a spectacle” and encouraged Councilman Dromm to visit the school and observe its school culture firsthand.
Charter schools also faced criticism outside Council chambers. Critics of charter schools, including former education committee Robert Jackson, held a rally outside Department of Education headquarters before the hearing to protest recent changes to state law.