Charter Reform and the Education Bureaucracy: Lessons from New York State

By Ascher, Carol; Greenberg, Arthur R. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Charter Reform and the Education Bureaucracy: Lessons from New York State


Ascher, Carol, Greenberg, Arthur R., Phi Delta Kappan


Can state and local agencies give the same high priority to providing support and technical assistance to charter schools as they currently give to their public responsibility to prevent fiscal malfeasance and school failure? If so, Ms. Ascher and Mr. Greenberg point out, these frequently maligned agencies could play a helpful role in stimulating the creation of good charter schools.

ACROSS the U.S., charter school reform has created new public schools relieved of some of the constraints under which conventional public schools have operated. While charter laws in different states have provided for varying degrees of deregulation, the reform has also been vulnerable to bureaucratic pressures. We trace some of these pressures as they have played out in New York State, focusing particularly on the charter school application process. Since charter schools are created by their charters, which are awarded as a result of the application review process, both the process and the charter application form are key to shaping the instruction and operations of charter schools.

Although there are currently three charter school authorizers in New York, our analysis focuses on the interaction between two: the charter school office of the Board of Education of the City of New York1 and the New York State Education Department's charter school office. There are three reasons for this focus. First, our experience is richest in this area. One of us worked for the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, heading the charter school initiative for the first two years after the law's enactment in December 1998; the other has been studying charter reform in New York City since fall 1999. Second, we are interested in the implementation of a new reform by mature bureaucracies. The Charter School Institute of the State University of New York, the third authorizer, was newly formed as a result of the legislation. Although its brief history is interesting, it illustrates the evolution of a new and developing organization and so falls outside the purpose of this analysis. Third, we are curious about the paradox of legislation that promises diminished regulatory interference but at the same time relies on educational bureaucracies for its implementation. Indeed, any statewide reform in education policy -- even charter reform, which aims to do away with levels of bureaucratic interference -- depends upon a bureaucracy for implementation.

New York's Charter Legislation

The charter school law in New York State was passed amid the kind of politically charged environment that has often accompanied education reform in general -- and particularly charter school reform. Two alternative bills, one proposed by the Republican governor and a second proposed by a Democratic assemblyman, were stalled for several years because of opposition by the teacher unions, the New York State School Boards Association, and other groups. When New York's charter law was finally passed without a hearing in December 1998, it was the governor's version, and the bill's success was tied to giving legislators a 38% pay raise.2

New York's charter law reflected the governor's and the legislature's interest in avoiding some of the obstacles to charter reform that had already been identified in other states. For example, education agencies in several states had developed regulations that restricted charter reform. Thus one intent of New York's law was to outflank the state's policy and ministerial bodies: the New York State Board of Regents (the Regents), which oversees education in the state, and its administrative arm, the state education department.

New York's law sharply curtails the "regulatory power" of the Regents and the state department regarding charter schools. In addition, while allowing the Regents, along with any school board in the state and the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, to authorize charter schools, the law also created a new authorizer, the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY). …

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