Public school parents in Albany, NY breathed a sigh of relief late in the evening of May 17th when word came that voters passed the proposed school budget. This was despite an unprecedented effort by the leadership of the Brighter Choice Foundation, which controls all eleven existing charter schools in Albany, to have the school budget defeated. Many Albany homes received three anonymous mailings over the past several weeks urging a “no” vote on the school budget, as well as a misleading telephone “push” poll. These mailings and the telephone poll contained blatantly false information, for example, that there has been a 20% tax increase over the past three years or that enrollment was down. (In fact, after a previous downward trend, enrollment has actually increased the past two years.)
Many suspected, but it was not known for sure until 7:00 pm on budget election day (the polls closed at 9:00 pm) that these deceptive mailings were the work of the charter school leaders. They spent, probably, tens of thousands of dollars producing and mailing these three items to over 30,000 voters.
Some public school advocates in Albany have been saying for years that the charter school industry was using Albany as an experiment to see how far they would have to go to destroy a public school district. Their recent actions show this to be true. The charters had nothing to gain if our public school budget failed. The charters would get their money next year from the public school budget regardless of whether the proposed budget passed. Their only purpose, apparently, is to undermine and destroy our public schools.
I’m thrilled that they did not succeed this time – the budget passed – but the lengths to which they are willing to go, spending tens of thousands of dollars in a mass, anonymous, deceptive mail campaign, shows our fight to defend the idea and reality of “public education” is far from over.
A little more background about Albany. We have approximately 10,000 school age children. A high percentage are from families living in poverty or near poverty. Approximately 20% attend privately run charter schools, with the balance in our public schools.
There is a higher concentration of privately run charter schools here than any other school district in New York State. The voters in Albany never approved any of these charter schools, but have to pay for them. The per pupil fee is mandated by state law and comes out of the public school budget, next year will cost our public schools approximately $30 million. The impact of the high concentration of charters is not just financial, it also has made long-term planning difficult and is disruptive to the education process as many children return to the public schools from the charters, either because of a family choice or due to being forced out of the charter.
The proposed school budget this year reflected a zero percent increase in the tax levy, a feat accomplished, in large part, due to the teacher’s union which ratified a new contract with no salary increases for next year. This zero percent tax levy increase is all the more remarkable in view of the significant reductions in state aid. In other words, this was – all things considered – an extraordinarily reasonable budget in which concessions were given in order to protect the students. And yet, the charter school leaders (all of whom are wealthy and live in affluent suburbs of Albany) engaged in an all-out effort to defeat the budget.
The over-saturation of charter schools in Albany over the past ten years has occurred with the approval and support of our state legislature, governor, the NYS Education Department and the State University of NY (which is a chartering entity under state law). It appears things are likely to get worse, as the newly appointed Commissioner of the State Education Department comes out of the charter school world.
We’ve survived this battle. The fight for high-quality public education for all children in Albany will continue. Now, however, no one can have any doubt as to the despicable character of the charter school leaders who are out to kill our public education system.