New York’s statewide teachers union is providing a glimpse of its multi-pronged strategy to shrink and potentially eliminate New York’s charter schools as it asks candidates whether they back the group’s agenda.

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has spent a generation combatting the operation and expansion of charter schools, publicly funded but independently operated schools that educate about 183,000 of the state’s 2.5 million students. Charters, which need periodic reauthorization from state government, often outperform nearby district-run schools in math and reading proficiency, increasing pressure to reform the costly K-12 system.

Most charter schools meanwhile aren’t unionized, meaning NYSUT and its parent unions don’t benefit financially from charter school funding the way they do from the billions of dollars that flow to school districts (and into members’ dues).

NYSUT’s efforts against charters have focused on limiting their numbers by maintaining the statutory cap on how many can operate. The union prior to this year had mounted little more than a campaign of harassment against existing charters, casting aspersions about the “transparency” and “accountability” around their operations. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for charter schools made any serious legislative effort impractical, since Cuomo was likely to veto anything detrimental.

But the questionnaire sent to this year’s State Senate and Assembly hopefuls looking to score the union’s endorsement shows the union is moving aggressively in Cuomo’s absence.

The union, for the first time, is formally asking candidates to commit to changing who can authorize (or reauthorize) a charter school. Right now, most of the state’s charter schools run with permission from either the state Board of Regents or the SUNY Board of Trustees, and only the Regents or SUNY trustees can authorize new schools. (Some charters in New York City and Buffalo received authorization through their local school boards).

The Regents, who on most issues tend to be sympathetic to if not aligned with NYSUT, have been increasingly hostile to charters in recent years. In 2020, the Regents ordered a “high-performing” Buffalo charter school to close, though the decision was later reversed. One Regent in June of that year suggested the COVID pandemic was a reason to block charter schools from opening or adding seats. Regents have also been cool to the idea of charter schools adding additional grade levels, something NYSUT sued unsuccessfully to block after a pair of K-8 charters moved to jointly serve high school students at the Vertex Partnership Academies in the Bronx.

The existing authorization process features something of a fail-safe by letting the SUNY Board of Trustees — historically much more friendly to charters — instead give the okay.

Without the moderating effect of the SUNY Board, the Regents would be free to use their discretion to tamp down on new or reauthorized charters by, among other things, saying they aren’t “innovative” enough.

And while state law caps the number of charters that can operate at any time, the statute presumes a constant churn as underperforming charters (unlike underperforming district-run schools) are closed and new ones are authorized. Gumming up that process, as the Regents seem inclined to do, would shrink the number of charter seats available to families through nothing more than normal attrition.

The push by anti-charter lawmakers to give the Regents the last word on new or reauthorized charters fell short during the 2022 session, but it cleared the Senate Education committee with just one “no” vote (Sen. Peter Oberacker from Otsego County). The legislation’s billing in NYSUT’s endorsement questionnaire all but guarantees it will be a focus in 2023, and that endorsed lawmakers will be reminded of what they pledged in return for the union’s coveted political support.

NYSUT meanwhile is again pushing a second and similarly concerning modification, asking lawmakers to change how public money flows to charter schools.

Right now, school districts generally act as a pass-through for state funds for the students for whom the districts aren’t responsible. But during the past three election cycles, NYSUT has asked candidates to pledge to “changing the manner by which charter schools are funded to instead have the state directly pay the cost of operating charter schools, rather than the current system” which NYSUT categorized as one in which “public school districts bear this cost.”

What sounds like a minor modification to state accounting practices would be a drastic departure from New York’s decades-old approach in which seats in charter schools are presumed to be funded when they are authorized.

Making charters a stand-alone item in the state budget would immediately force charter schools to compete with every other state spending priority and expose them to across-the-board reductions when the state faces a cash crunch. It would give anti-charter elements in government another knob they could turn to squeeze the sector and discourage, if not prevent, new schools from opening.

In an extreme scenario, the governor or Legislature could withhold funding for any kindergarten seats in one year and then any first-grade seats in the next, strangling charter schools without displacing a single student.

In Connecticut, where charters are funded in a manner similar to what NYSUT seeks for New York, a pair of charter schools have gone unopened for several years after being authorized because union-friendly officials have refused to fund them in the state budget.

This isn’t a new concept in New York: legislation requiring direct payments was first introduced in 2001 and has come back in each session since. NYSUT since 2018 has asked candidates to support the idea.

Taken together, these changes would put New York’s charter schools in a dangerous vice grip that opponents would be free to tighten as the moment allows.

Many if not most of the 191 legislative candidates running with NYSUT’s endorsement have presumably agreed to support both initiatives. Charter schools, and the students who count on them, could be in for a rough ride in 2023.

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