These days it’s hard to have a good word to say about Albany. The Legislature is dysfunctional; the lame-duck governor is in over his head; and nobody seems to know how to solve the state’s long-term financial problems.
While that’s all true, let it never be said that Albany is incapable of getting anything right. Last week, the Legislature handed a victory not to special interests but to New York’s schoolchildren-lawmakers passed a bill that will more than double the number of charter schools in the state.
The casual observer might wonder why such a no-brainer would be hailed as a major achievement. Charter schools, after all, have gained a tremendous following, especially in poor neighborhoods with failing public schools. The president of the United States and his administration are fully supportive of this innovative and effective reform. So what’s the big deal?
Well, the big deal is the steadfast opposition of the teachers’ unions. Charter schools operate free of union work rules, which means they operate with the best interests of the children, not the union, in mind. Naturally, the union tried to do all it could to prevent Albany from expanding the number of charters from 200 to 460.
The teachers’ union packs a formidable political punch, and it seems fair to say that more than a few state lawmakers dare not make a move without the union’s approval. This time, however, the union found itself on the losing side of an important argument. For New York to compete for a federal grant of up to $700 million for its schools, it had to expand the number of charter schools. The Obama administration’s so-called “Race to the Top” program emphasizes the growth of charter schools as part of its mission to improve education in poorly served neighborhoods.
Under the expansion, which Mayor Bloomberg supported, the number of charters in the city will increase from about 100 to 214. That’s good news for students, but the deal also could include good news for teachers as well. If the state does win Race to the Top funding, the influx of federal dollars could avoid layoffs in city schools. The union also managed to win some concessions on oversight of the charter schools, but all in all, the bill’s passage was the right thing to do at the right time.
Yes, Albany got this one right.