Charters rekindle controversy over teacher training requirements

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The June agreement on mayoral control of New York City schools may have settled the controversy over charter school caps for now, but a decision by the Charter School Committee of the State University of New York board of trustees has ensured that charters will remain at the center of the latest state education drama.

On July 6, the committee, which oversees the SUNY Charter School Institute, approved a controversial proposal to allow charters in its network to create their own teacher certification requirements. The institute is accepting public comment on the plan until Sept. 11, according to spokeswoman Michelle Bianchi.

The proposal would allow a teacher to be certified with only 30 hours of instruction and 100 hours of classroom experience. A memorandum on the decision, published by the institute, explains that this plan seeks to clear some hurdles to becoming a teacher, making the process easier and encouraging prospective educators.

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Despite that intention, the move has been criticized by education leaders. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa voiced their concerns with the proposal at City & State’s “On Education” event on Aug. 16.

“I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said. She explained that the plan indicated to her that teachers were less deserving of rigorous certification than other professionals. Moreover, she pointed out that teachers who were certified under this program would not necessarily be able to teach at other public schools or charter schools not run by SUNY.

This opinion has also been voiced by New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, who submitted a formal comment to the SUNY board of trustees in August. NYSUT asserted that the new rules would “significantly undercut the quality of teaching in charter schools by permitting unqualified individuals to educate large numbers of high-needs students.”

Another union leader, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, wrote an open letter to Joseph Belluck, the chairman of SUNY’s Charter School Committee, arguing that SUNY is legally incapable of changing the certification requirements for its teachers under New York education law.

Elia similarly did not mince words with her disapproval of the plan at the City & State event.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the 30-hour training requirement. “We can’t put people in front of children anywhere in New York state that aren’t prepared to be great teachers.”

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that.” – state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

However, representatives from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute have pushed back against these characterizations.

“The proposed regulations reflect the innovation that charter schools are known for,” Bianchi said.

Bianchi also pointed to test scores in charter schools run by SUNY, after the state recently released the 2017 English and math exam results for students in grades three through eight. In math, 40.2 percent of students were proficient statewide, and 39.8 percent received a passing grade in English. According to Bianchi, students in SUNY charter schools are 57 percent proficient in math and 51 percent proficient in English.

“When compared to their local school districts, over 82 percent of SUNY authorized charter schools outperformed their local district in ELA (English language arts) and over 87 (percent) outperformed their local district in math,” she said, indicating that SUNY charter schools have already created standards to adequately educate children.

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SUNY Charter Schools Institute Executive Director Susie Miller Carello implied that state education officials could learn from charter school regulations, instead of the other way around. “With these results, it’s a mystery why anyone wouldn’t choose great SUNY charters,” she said. “Clearly these teachers ought to be showing other teachers how to produce the same results.”

Belluck also questioned the motives of state officials in criticizing charter schools.

“It is obvious that Chancellor Rosa and Commissioner Elia don’t want charter schools to succeed,” he said. “They are doing everything they can to undermine SUNY charter schools because they are outperforming their schools.”

Clearly, state education officials have a different concept of what will be best for all students.

“I feel very passionate, as I know my commissioner does, about this issue of making sure that we honor this profession in a way that this profession deserves to be honored by having highly qualified teachers,” Rosa said at City & State’s event. She noted that having adequate training for teachers is the right way “to ensure that our classrooms have the very best.”

The Charter Schools Committee meets again on Oct. 11 to discuss further action, and it remains to be seen whether the time for public comment has changed the mind of any member, or if the release of test results and the criticism from state officials and union leaders have hardened the committee’s position.

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