The Oasis Was a Mirage
After failing miserably for almost ten years, a rare union-run charter school is mercifully shuttered.
In September 2005, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Randi Weingarten was frustrated and wanted to prove a point. She explained that the union was opening two charter schools so that it could “reclaim” the original charter school model conceived by former American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Albert Shanker, who said “charter schools could help teachers work without the stifling bureaucracy and stifling micromanagement.”
Taking a potshot at NYC school superintendent Joel Klein, Weingarten said, “This kind of effort, this kind of potential, is what we should be unleashing on the school system every single day, and the Klein administration will not let us do this anymore in the public school arena. It is incredibly ironic that the only way that teachers could do this kind of bottom-up thinking at a school was to do it using the mechanics of a charter school.”
She added that the UFT Charter School would “show real, quantifiable student achievement and with those results, finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success.” As the school was about to open, Weingarten crowed, “This school is an oasis.”
Well it’s almost ten years later and the oasis’s land is barren, the water is fetid and the camels are sickly. And the achievement is certainly “quantifiable” – quantifiably bad. The State University of New York (SUNY) which authorized the two schools – K-8 and a high school – has decided to pull the plug on the elementary school for many reasons. (The high school remains on life supports.)
The K-8 school’s test results have been abysmal. In 2014, only 11 percent of its students were proficient in English and 18 percent in math, compared to 28 and 36 percent in traditional public schools with similar demographics. At Harlem Success Academy (Weingarten-nemesis Eva Moskowitz’s non-unionized charter school), those numbers are 59 and 92 percent.
And those awful results are just the tip of the iceberg. Other findings:
- The school had a high teacher turnover.
- There were budget deficits and “operational chaos.”
- Declining enrollment in the middle school exacerbated the school’s fiscal duress, which SUNY attributed to “poor bookkeeping.”
- The union had to bail out the school with interest-free loans.
- SUNY also highlighted “chronic shortages of textbooks and unrepaired equipment.”
- There were missing standardized test booklets that were not returned to the publisher for scoring.
- In one geography lesson, “rather than making use of technological resources to present the critical economic and political importance of the Nile, the teacher had students color in blank maps of the river.”
- The campus has lacked stability with five principals in seven years.
- School leaders reported that the staff had to be counseled on “appropriate interaction with students following approximately 10 corporal punishment incidents.”
- A review of board minutes found “numerous, apparently systemic, Open Meetings Law violations.”
- The school was in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, because it had a number of students who required more restrictive classroom settings than the school offered.
- The school “was in violation of state law requiring that school personnel (and certain contractors with direct access to students) be subject to a fingerprint-supported criminal background check prior to appointment at the school. At the time of the renewal inspection visit, the school was unable to produce evidence that five individuals were appropriately cleared for employment.”
But hey, other than that….
Not surprisingly, Weingarten (now AFT president) and other union leaders who constantly blab to the media have been very cricket-like about the school’s closing. Only the combative current UFT president, Michael Mulgrew, has spoken out, but of course the union took no responsibility for the school’s miserable results. Instead, he blamed SUNY, the state authorizer, for its “narrow focus on state tests.” But James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center countered Mulgrew’s nonsense, saying. “It’s well known by now that the UFT is allergic to actual accountability. So I’m not surprised—but still dismayed—that … UFT would not accept even the slightest responsibility for its abysmal failure to provide children with a great education.”
Very oddly, on March 3rd, after all the bad news had been reported, UFT came out with a press release touting a “Charter School Accountability Agenda,” a reform plan created by two AFT front groups – the Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest. Its purpose is “to ensure that charter schools fulfill their role in education as lawmakers originally envisioned.” Included is this snippet:
The American people overwhelmingly support accountability and transparency for charter schools. If a school takes public dollars, the public wants some control and oversight of what goes on there. The Charter School Accountability Agenda lays out tangible steps we need to take to guarantee that every child gets a high-quality public education, whether that child is in a neighborhood school or a publicly funded charter school.
This is tantamount to a convicted bank robber telling a financial institution how it should conduct its business.
And wouldn’t you think that the union would have gone out of its way to ensure that UFT Charter School was a success? Over the past several years, teachers unions have been increasingly attacked for being anti-child and this would have been a perfect opportunity to prove that they really cared about educating kids. Whether it was carelessness or world-class ineptitude, the failure was monumental. Never one to mince words, school reform advocate RiShawn Biddle wrote, “After the failure of its UFT Charter School, AFT President Randi Weingarten and UFT boss Michael Mulgrew shouldn’t be allowed near any school operation.” I would amend that to not being allowed near any school. Period.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.