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 have projected confidence after the Supreme Court decision on Janus.

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.”

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.