Mixed Review for UFT Charter School: Time for Some Humility?

This afternoon, the Charter Schools Institute of SUNY presented its renewal recommendation for the UFT Charter School.* The recommendation is for a short-term renewal (three years instead of the maximum five).† The school failed to achieve a full-term recommendation because it did not have a compelling and consistent record of meeting its academic achievement goals.† Instead, its outcomes were mixed. But CSI concluded that it had put in place during the last two years the personnel and structure that are likely to lead to unambiguous success if given additional time. To sum up: good in some areas, weak in others, and a promising outlook for the future.

I read the report with some interest having pushed for the school’s original approval as then-Executive Director of CSI. (There was pressure to politicize the process, but the SUNY Trustees agreed with me that the UFT’s team had a shot at creating a great school for inner-city children.) Today’s report seems to be the usual thorough, balanced and nuanced document that people have come to expect out of SUNY’s Charter Schools Instituteóbut I’m sure readers will take of it what they like.†

The UFT will pluck out the various metrics they met (quite a few of them, particularly in math) and highlight the substantial praise for their improvement over time, with emphasis, it seems, in the secondary grades. They will understandably focus on CSI’s recommendation to permit the UFT to expand into a full high school program as proof of SUNY’s finding that a strong program is in place.† They will note that the school is operational and fiscally sound and in compliance with most laws. They will point with pride to the various reports of how well teachers are supported by the resident Teacher Center and the atmosphere of collegiality.

Meanwhile union critics will harvest descriptions of the school’s failings with avidity (and there is substantial grist for that mill too).† Much attention, by no means unfairly, will be given over to the many contrasts the report draws between the school’s early and later years of operation.† In somewhat bland bureaucratize, the report outlines a not very pretty picture of the school’s rocky start-up and continuing challenges. They will most certainly note the shortcomings in the school’s English Language Arts program, and, more curiously, social studies.†

So, from this State University manna (you may wonder) on what do I choose to sup?

First, I cannot help but focus on the hypocrisy the report uncovers:

  • The report draws attention (rightly) to the fact that the school enrolls fewer special education, fewer English Language Learners and fewer free lunch students than the CSD in which it is located, obviating for once and for all the union’s inferences that differences in those numbers are the result of cheating and manipulationóand showing that those differences are structural and not amenable to statutory fixes that the union has trumpeted (the real purpose of which are simply to limit charter school growth).
  • It also notes that the school’s board of trustees, of which Randi Weingarten is chair, violated the Open Meetings Law: another reason not to take lessons in transparency from the union.
  • Finally, I was amazed to learn that the budget the UFT supplied as part of its renewal showed substantial increases in per pupil revenue despite the UFT having lobbied for a funding freeze this year and acquiesced to one for next year.† Does the UFT know something we don’t or are they just willing to subsidize their own school while letting other charter schools, even those unionized, suffer unfair, double cuts?† If so, there goes solidarity.

Second, the report once again underscores the reality of this endeavor. The education of inner city children in neighborhoods such as East New York is excruciatingly hard work and there is no silver bullet to doing it.† With results in for the first four years of the UFT Charter School’s existence, we cannot say that being free of a union contract (particularly the City version) is enough to ensure success (we have too many poor charter schools which have no union); but neither can we say that having substantial even unfettered teacher voice** is enough either (or we’d be looking at a full-term renewal recommendation). As to the big question of whether the City’s contract (or a thin version) would stifle or stimulate achievement in the charter sector over time, we don’t know much more than we did before this report.†

So the jury is still out. And maybe that’s the point.† Maybe the UFT, a bit proud but a bit humbled, might quietly say: “Just as SUNY has given us the benefit of the doubt to continue our experiment in teacher-led schooling, so will we view other charter schools with the same good faith as they seek to continue along their own paths.”†

But that’s probably asking too much.†

*The UFT has an odd habit of saying it runs two schoolsóit is actually one with a middle and elementary school campus.
**This term apparently polls better than “collective bargaining.”