New York officials are toasting the 25th anniversary of the state law that has allowed charter schools to flourish – with then-Gov. George Pataki proudly recalling to The Post how he overcame fierce resistance in the state legislature to make it happen.
The New York City Charter School Center will be launching a major publicity campaign this week celebrating the passing of the Charter School Act in 1998, which Pataki said only came to fruition after he bribed the legislature with a pay raise – so to speak.
“No one was for charter schools. The teachers’ union were opposed. The suburban school districts were opposed, Democrats and Republicans were opposed,” the former three-term Republican governor said.
“You could fit charter school supporters in one of those old phone booths,” Pataki quipped in a recent interview, recalling how then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wouldn’t even discuss a charter school bill.
But Pataki had a trump card to bring legislators to the table.
Lawmakers wanted a pay raise, and they wouldn’t get one for at least another two years if the then-governor vetoed a salary booster bill.
Pataki laid down an ultimatum: No pay raises for lawmakers unless they passed a charter school law – in essence a political horse trade.
It was an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“The legislature wasn’t going to pass the charter school bill. But the legislators wanted a pay raise. They were desperate,” he said.
“That was the weapon I had. It was very simple. `You pass my charter school or you get no pay raise. I veto your pay raise,'” he said.
“I thought allowing charter schools for parents and kids was one of the civil rights issues of our time. It was truly immoral to trap kids in failing public schools year after year.”
Pataki put language in the bill to make sure the educational establishment and politicians beholden to the teachers’ union didn’t prevent charter schools from opening.
The growth of the charter school sector represents one of the most far reaching changes in urban education in the 21st century.
There are now 142,500 students enrolled in 274 charter schools throughout the five boroughs – roughly 15% or one of every six public school students.
Students enrolled in charter schools often outperform their district school counterparts, according to results on the state’s English and math tests.
The alternative, privately managed, publicly funded schools typically have a longer school day and calendar year than traditional public schools.
Pataki called the approval of the charter school law one of the crowning achievements during his 12 years in office, offering other choices and opportunity to families trapped in low-performing traditional public schools.
“We know charter schools do work. Charter schools have had a real positive impact on thousands of kids’ lives. I’m proud of that,” he told The Post.
“The charter school movement has been an absolute success,” he added. “The growth of charter schools is a major achievement. We created new schools that allowed for freedom and creativity.”
The results and the popularity of charter schools among families is proof of that accomplishment, he said.
“I’m not surprised,” Pataki continued. “Parents want their kids to have a future. Charter schools are here to stay.”
As part of the law – which passed in December 1998 – a charter school institute was created within the State University of New York to review applications. The governor’s appointees to SUNY’s board of trustees would vote to issue licenses, along with the state Board of Regents, whose members were appointed by the legislature.
Charter schools are typically given a five year license that is up for renewal — schools where kids show improvement are kept open, those that don’t are closed.
“We have accountability built into the process,” Pataki said.
A leading advocate of the city’s charter school movement confirmed Pataki’s assessment that the law was only approved after a fierce political fight.
“The passage of New York State’s Charter School Act in 1998 was no small feat – the political battle was real,” said James Merriman, CEO, New York City Charter School Center.
“Those few brave and intrepid leaders who opened that first year had to deal with hostile forces of the status quo and grossly inadequate public funding,” Merriman added, “but they persevered and by sheer grit and determination built something out of nothing – new, innovative public schools.”
The city Charter School Center’s 25th anniversary celebration includes a video of testimonials from early pioneers and charter school educators, including Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy Charter School.
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“We were allowed to rethink education ….You can’t get `one size fits all’ and think that every child is going to be successful. That’s why the charter school movement is so important here in New York City,” Canada says in the video.
The teachers’ unions in recent years has been the fiercest opponents of charter schools – whose staff are mostly non-union – claiming they divert students and funding from the traditional, unionized public schools.
But the Charter School Center video highlights a quote that former United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker supported charters as “schools of choice.”
New York City has 274 charter schools across the five boroughs, including: 94 in the Bronx, 90 in Brooklyn, 55 in Manhattan, 27 in Queens and eight in Staten Island.
The majority of students – 90% – are black or Latino, 80% come from low-income families and nearly one in five are identified as special needs students.
A few legislators agree with Pataki that the charter school law has been an undeniable success.
“Charter schools were created with one fundamental belief in mind – that every student, no matter what neighborhood they’re from or their family’s income – deserves access to a high-quality public education,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the south Bronx.
“New York City’s public charters have helped close the achievement gap for thousands of Black and Latino students in underserved communities like the Bronx and compete with some of the best school districts in New York State— an achievement worthy of celebration.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Brian Cunningham said, “Charter schools were created with one fundamental belief in mind – that every student, whether you live on Lefferts Boulevard or Lefferts Avenue – deserves access to a high-quality public education.
“Since 1998, charter schools have offered parents the opportunity to choose the best educational path for their children. I salute NYC charter schools for 25 years of connecting students to quality education and helping to close the achievement gap,” Cunningham said.
Bronx Assemblyman John Zaccaro Jr. said charters “have helped level the playing field for thousands of kids historically shut out of high performing schools simply because of where they lived, helping them find educational and life-long success.”
Still, Pataki said the campaign to allow more charter schools to open lives on.
Earlier this year, the legislature refused to pass Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to lift the state-imposed cap on charter schools in New York City and allowed just 14 new schools to open in the five boroughs through the reissuance of so-called “zombie” or unused charter licenses.
Pataki spoke of the “progressive left” being a bunch of hypocrites — obsessing about income inequality but perpetuating it by opposing charter schools and instead “trap low-income mostly minority students in failing public schools year after year.”
“They are exacerbating income inequality. It’s racist,” Pataki said. “It’s just immoral. It’s because of the complete stranglehold of the teachers’ union.”
Pataki said one of his disappointments is that more public schools have not replicated the academic programs in charter schools that work, though some charter school educators said there is some collaboration. The Uncommon Charter Schools network offers professional development training to traditional public school teachers .
“Why wouldn’t they do what works? They don’t! Let’s copy what works! Do what works!” he said.