Irresponsible Charter School Promoters Blocked from Further Lowering Teaching and Learning Standards

Despite the vehement objections of thousands of teachers, parents, college professors, public school advocates, state officials, and teachers’ unions, in late 2017 the State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustee’s charter school committee voted 4 to 1 to unilaterally and illegally lower training and preparation standards for teachers employed at privately-operated charter schools approved by SUNY (about 165 across the state). State officials called SUNY’s irresponsible decision to put more unqualified teachers in classrooms “an insult to the teaching profession.”

The anti-democratic SUNY decision meant that many privately-operated charter schools across New York would be able to certify their own teachers. Even worse, teachers in these schools could be hired without meeting many of the requirements fulfilled by thousands enrolled in traditional teacher preparation programs. For example, prospective charter school teachers would only have to sit for the equivalent of a month of classroom instruction and practice teaching for 40 hours before becoming certified. And unlike teachers on a traditional certification path in New York, they will not be required to earn a master’s degree or take all of the state’s teacher-certification exams. Standards were lowered in other ways as well.

SUNY “argues” that lowering teaching and learning standards is necessary because it is hard to find, attract, and keep good teachers. SUNY ignored the extensive literature that shows that the teacher turnover rate in charter schools across the nation is extremely high because working conditions in charter schools are inferior to working conditions in public schools. More than 90% of charter school teachers are not unionized and many leave their position in under three years. Student and principal turnover rates are also exceptionally high in charter schools across the country. Instability and upheaval have defined much of the market-oriented charter school sector for more than 27 years.

To be clear, charter school teachers, on average, are paid less, have fewer benefits, and typically work longer days and years than their peers in public schools. They also tend to have less experience and fewer credentials than public school teachers. And, as in the corporate world where workers are usually voiceless and devalued, charter school teachers are considered “at-will” employees, which means that they can be fired at any time, for almost any reason, and without any recourse for redress. Due process has never been big in non-profit and for-profit charter schools.

Naturally, with the support of the public, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which represents more than 600,000 workers across the state, sued SUNY for its reckless decision. And, on October 17, 2019, Courthouse News Service reported that, “New York’s largest teachers union scored a victory in the war over charter schools Thursday with an appeals court ruling that state policymakers [SUNY] overstepped by diluting certification requirements for charter school educators.” ((Russell, J., “Court nixes watered-down standards for Charter School Teachers“, Courthouse News Service, October 17, 2019.)) The court made it clear that only the state education commissioner has the power to establish teacher-certification rules. SUNY has been rebuffed. SUNY cannot set its own standards for certifying teachers. Michael Mulgrew, president of United Federation of Teachers, said, “The state’s Appellate Court made it clear that SUNY charter schools can’t dumb-down teacher certification standards.”

Charter school advocates have been watering down standards for teaching and learning for years. SUNY is self-serving and pragmatic. It is incapable of understanding that becoming a good teacher takes extensive preparation, reflection, experience, assessments, practice, and more. It is not a form of work you can wing with minimal or superficial training and preparation, especially when we are talking about the future of youth, society, and the economy.

This court decision represents a victory for public education and democracy. It shows that antidemocratic and antisocial decisions by the rich and their allies are recognized by many as being illegitimate and harmful. More importantly, it shows that when the weight of the public is put behind a pro-social agenda, the public can prevail and the rich can be defeated—often quite easily.

Power has always rested with the public. It just has to be harnessed effectively in the complicated present to bring about major changes favoring society, including an economy that has as its aim ensuring the well-being of all. An outdated economic system that reduces everything to “cost considerations” and guarantees the rich become even richer and more powerful and violent each year is detrimental to the natural and social environment. It is dangerous and must be consciously rejected and combatted, individually and collectively.

Many more battles lie ahead. Neoliberals and corporate school reformers are constantly plotting new ways to destroy the public interest under the veneer of high ideals. At the same time, the public increasingly recognizes that the rich and their representatives in various spheres serve only to negate the public interest. The public cannot afford to not analyze and act collectively in its own interest.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.