A debate over Gov. Kathy Hochul's controversial proposal to create 85 new charter schools and lift New York City's cap on more of them took center stage at Wednesday's legislative budget hearing on education spending — a significant portion of the governor's proposed $227 billion budget.
Leaders in the state Education Department don't understand why Hochul is proposing to lift a cap on more charter schools in New York City and open licenses to 85 more anywhere in the state.
State Education Department Commissioner Betty Rosa testified to lawmakers the department wasn't consulted about the decision.
"To a great extent, I'm not sure what the thinking is given the student reduction in New York City," she said.
She encouraged lawmakers to ask Hochul's office about the logic behind the proposal, which was met with strong opposition from educators and politically powerful unions and organizations.
"Gov. Hochul believes every student deserves a quality education, and New York City parents and students deserve the same access to educational options as those in the rest of the state," governor's spokesman John Lindsay said in a statement Wednesday. "The governor's executive budget makes an unprecedented $34.5 billion investment in public education — including fully funding the Foundation Aid formula for the first time in history -- and would not change the statewide cap on charter schools."
Charter schools continue to have long waitlists for students, with reports of demands from New York City parents for more.
Hochul's plan to increase charter school funding by 4.5% is because of statutory funding formulas and changes in charter school enrollment, according to the governor's office.
Representatives with the United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers unions, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators and the School Administrators Association of New York State blasted the charter school proposal during Wednesday's hearing.
It inspired a debate about the efficacy of charter schools and the law that created the statewide cap of 460 charter schools across New York.
Rosa said several charter schools are run well, but most aren't financially transparent and fail to provide adequate services to students with learning disabilities or special needs.
Charter schools are centralized in areas with poor-performing public districts, especially low-income or minority communities.
"If it's such a wonderful experiment, then let me see it places that embrace it other than communities of color," Rosa said.
The proposal has also angered members of organizations that represent religious and other independent schools who argue increased aid for charter schools and not other schools that aren't public schools is unfair.
“While the governor portrays her proposal as a common sense means of providing options to families, the reality is that the proposal would supplant educational options rather than supplement them,” said James Cultrara, executive secretary of the Council and Director for Education of the New York State Catholic Conference. “As highlighted by a 2013 study published by Albany Law School‘s Government Law Center, for every charter school that opened in New York, a Catholic school closed. Common sense (and recent history) actually tells us that the expansion of charter schools has reduced the diverse array of schools available to families and increased the burden on taxpayers.”
Education leaders from across the state also testified they're thrilled with Hochul's commitment to increase school funding by $3 billion, or 10%, in the next budget and fully fund foundation aid with a $2.7 billion increase. But they argued the foundation aid formula dates back to the 2000 U.S. Census and needs to be updated.
The state Education Department disperses foundation aid to districts, flexible funding that can be used for any appropriate educational purpose. Districts are required to report extensive budget and expense reports to the department.
New York schools also continue to struggle with a deep shortage of teachers, staff and administrators worsened by poor salaries, benefits and support.
"Also testing, the obsession with testing has made [education] into testing mills," NYSUT president Andrew Pallotta said during testimony. "We want kids, students to enjoy school."
Department officials continue to examine how to adjust the state's rigorous teacher certification requirements, decrease the cost of becoming certified and increase the number of high school programs students can take to earn college credit toward a bachelor's degree to become an educator, said James Baldwin, SED's senior deputy commissioner for education policy.
Panelists also stressed the need for more funding for school guidance counselors, social workers and other mental health resources to more effectively help students who behave inappropriately in class.
That includes Assembly Education Committee Chair bill that would prevent school suspensions as a default disciplinary method.