In January Governor Pataki proposed sweeping legislation that would give individuals and organizations the right to create public charter schools, either from scratch or by converting existing public schools. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws, and approximately 500 charter schools are operating, most of them in Arizona, California, and Michigan.
The late Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, sparked the movement in 1988 when he proposed that teacher-led groups apply to a variety of state authorities for charters, agreeing to meet high academic standards in exchange for the far greater autonomy needed to reach those standards, including control of their own budgets, freedom from bureaucratic regulation, and the opportunity to spend more money at the school site rather than on administrative overhead. Minnesota passed the first charter law in 1991 and opened the first charter school a year later. Since then it has become clear that there are good charter laws and Potemkin ones—those that produce very few charter schools or none at all (as in nine states).
Thankfully, Governor Pataki knows the difference between the two. Opponents of charter schools understand that the best way to block them is to place the approval of charters solely in the hands of local school boards, which are invariably hostile to the whole enterprise for fear of weakening their own control. The governor's legislation wisely allows both local school boards and other public agencies, including the New York Board of Regents and public universities, to grant charters.
Another stumbling block to charters is the cap that many states impose on their number. The Massachusetts law permits only 25 charters for the entire state. California began with a limit of 100 but has since approved 118 charter schools and is considering raising the statutory limit in response to public demand. Governor Pataki has proposed an unlimited number of charter schools for New York.
Charter laws differ in the way they handle teacher qualifications. Some states permit waivers for uncertified teachers (such as artists or scientists) or allow a certain proportion (up to 50 percent) to be uncertified. The Pataki bill—like charter legislation in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—does not require teacher certification in charter schools. Not surprisingly, teachers' unions demand that charter schools hire only state-certified teachers. At a March forum in Albany, the New York State United Teachers made clear that it was unlikely to support any charter legislation.
It's impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers' union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state's public schools.