certification showdown

New York unions sue, accusing charter schools of lowering standards for teachers

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (right) and state teachers union chief Andy Pallotta announced a lawsuit against SUNY on Thursday.

The city and state teachers unions filed a lawsuit Thursday in an effort to block dozens of New York City charter schools from being allowed to certify their own teachers, setting up a showdown between powerful unions and a group that oversees some of the state’s highest-performing charter schools.

The lawsuit argues that the State University of New York — which oversees 167 charter schools across the state — overstepped its authority by allowing its  schools to devise their own teacher certification programs. The unions argue that inexperienced and unqualified teachers will end up in front of children.

SUNY’s new policy would allow some charter schools to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching, while eliminating a master’s degree requirement.

The head of the city teachers union, which represents few charter school teachers, said the new certification rules amount to an attack on the teaching profession and its standards.

“What we know is that every student needs a highly trained professional,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference outside the Manhattan State Supreme Court building. “It’s a political agenda to say you don’t need a highly qualified person to teach.”

The new certification policy, and the union’s lawsuit, hinge on a change in state law that gave SUNY the authority to regulate the “governance, structure and operations of charter schools.”

SUNY officials say the statute, part of a 2016 budget deal among state lawmakers, gives them the right to create a new teacher certification process. Large charter networks have cheered the change because they see their own training as better preparation than traditional higher education programs — and because it will allow them to recruit from a wider range of backgrounds.

“I think it’s very clear that the legislature gave the SUNY Charter Schools Committee the authority to make these sorts of changes,” said Joseph Belluck, chairman of the SUNY Charter Schools Committee.

But the unions contend the new policy violates other state laws governing teacher certification, and that SUNY’s interpretation of the change would let them skirt everything from fingerprinting requirements to the cap limiting the number of new charter schools that can open across the state. (They also argue the rules were not open for a sufficient period of public comment.)

“They seem to think that the legislature gave them carte blanche to do whatever they want,” said Adam Ross, the United Federation of Teachers’ general counsel, “and that can’t possibly be.”

What exactly the law permits has been a matter of controversy almost since the moment it passed.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan — a Republican who is a staunch charter-school supporter — took it to mean that certain charter schools would be exempt from “rules and regulations that were hampering innovative teaching and learning,” as he put it in a letter to the governor. In particular, he said, the law gave charters “flexibility on the rigid certification requirements.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — a teachers-union ally — sent a letter in response saying that the new law does not allow SUNY to disregard existing ones. However, at the end of the 2017 legislative session, Heastie’s spokeswoman sent a statement with a more equivocal stance.

“The Assembly Majority has stated that we don’t necessarily agree with SUNY’s assessment on teacher certifications,” the spokeswoman, Kerri Biche, told Chalkbeat in July. “But that’s an interpretation for SUNY to determine.” (Heastie’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.)

The two sides have used the lawsuit to question each other’s motives and level broader critiques. At a press conference Thursday, union officials said the charter industry is eager to weaken teacher certification rules because they have trouble hanging on to teachers and need quick replacements, even if they’re not qualified.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, said the union-backed lawsuit is an effort to protect faculty members who depend on jobs at local colleges that could be scaled back if some charter school teachers no longer need master’s degrees. (The state teachers union, which jointly filed the lawsuit, represents education professors at CUNY and SUNY schools.)

“They want to ensure that the present requirements that everyone gets a master’s is adhered to,” Merriman said. “This is not about ensuring students have a high quality teacher in front of them.”

A spokesman for the New York State United Teachers disputed that characterization.

“We care deeply about the teaching profession and ensuring that all children have a qualified teacher,” said Carl Korn, the NYSUT spokesman. “That’s our only motivation.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.