Don’t Turn Back the Clock on Education Reform

A judge who is no friend of reform has rebuffed a cynical bid to shut down the city’s charter schools. That’s wonderful news for parents and educators who are determined to restore excellence and accountability to the classroom.

But it’s also a warning: the city’s public schools have made remarkable progress during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, but there’s no guarantee that his successor will be as willing to challenge the status quo. That’s another way of saying the next mayor may well decide to turn the schools back over to the reactionary forces of the city’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

The charter schools case centers on legal action brought by a group of parents serving as stand-ins for the union. The parents’ group charged that charter schools should be required to pay rent to the city for the use of city-owned facilities. Rent payments would effectively force many if not all charters to close.

The parents’ contention is, of course, absurd. The city funds charter schools, just as it funds traditional public schools. The difference is that charter schools operate outside of union rules. The schools are so popular that students are chosen by lottery.

The union and a few like-minded parents see charter schools not as a successful innovation that has improved the lives of thousands of children, but as a challenge to their worldview—an archaic ideology that puts union jobs first, not students.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe would seem to be among those who distrust charter schools and the thinking behind them. When a lawyer representing charter schools argued that rent payments would force the schools to close, this impartial arbiter said sarcastically, “That would be a gosh-darn shame.”

She should have recused herself immediately. She didn’t. So her decision is all the more remarkable. She threw out the anti-charter argument—not because it is a ridiculous position, but because the courts, in her view, do not have the power to order charters to pay rent.

The pro-union parents say they’ll appeal, although it is unlikely they will ever find a more sympathetic judge than Justice Jaffe.

Whether the case continues or not, the real issue here is the staying power of anti-reform groups like the teachers’ union. If the next mayor isn’t willing to confront the UFT, the Bloomberg legacy of achievement may be short-lived. And that would be tragic.