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SUNY considers lighter requirements for charter school teachers


The State University of New York board members overseeing charter schools are in the midst of a public comment period on whether charter school teachers should be allowed to have fewer qualifications than public school teachers.

Under the controversial proposal, charter schools that already have demonstrated strong academic performance would be able to set their own qualifications, with one proposal requiring a bachelor’s degree and just 30 hours of classroom instruction in order to begin teaching students.

Public school teachers are required to eventually obtain a master’s degree and undergo a lengthy certification process that includes exams and a full semester of student teaching.

Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers union, said he is “completely against” the proposal.

“Why would you have someone who only needs 30 hours of instructional time with students to become a teacher in one circumstance?” said Pallotta, who added traditional public schools appropriately have “tremendous” requirements for teachers.

Proponents, including the chair of SUNY’s charter school committee, Joseph Belluck, say the charter schools have struggled to hire enough teachers. There’s a statewide teacher shortage.

At a contentious July meeting of the committee, Belluck said there are thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools because their parents want them to attend.

“The parents of these kids do not care about the politics of this issue. They don’t care about the teachers union,” Belluck said. “They want the best education for their kids.”

Two people spoke at the committee meeting, including Maria Bautista with the pro-school funding group Alliance for Quality Education. She accused the committee of proposing a “racist” policy, saying minority children disproportionately attend charter schools, and they would be the ones with the less qualified teachers.

“We know they're going to disproportionately impact black and brown children,” Bautista said. “You would never have uncertified teachers teach your children. Why is it OK for black and brown children? Why is that OK? That is not OK.”

Bautista, whose group receives some funding from the teachers union, also criticized the timing of the meeting, saying it was announced one day before the July 4 holiday and held two days later, with little time for parents to find out about it.

Belluck answered that parents of charter school students will be given every opportunity to offer input. And he accused the group of smearing his character in Twitter posts.

“When I look at my phone, and someone tweets the following, ‘@jbelluck is willing to allow this racist policy persist,’ I take umbrage,” Belluck said. 

“That’s not a smear campaign, that’s actually what is happening,” Bautista replied. “You’re the chair (of the committee) and you are allowing it to proceed.”

The executive director of AQE, Billy Easton, said the Twitter posts did not accuse any individual of racism, but called the proposed policy “racist.”

Belluck has used his own Twitter handle in recent days to dog the State Education Department over the results of third- through eighth-grade English and math test scores that showed charter school students performing slightly better than their public school counterparts. He accuses the education commissioner and state Board of Regents chancellor of not wanting charter schools to succeed, and tweeted that they “should take the blinders off.”

Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia has expressed reservations about lesser requirements for charter school teachers, saying it’s a “cause for concern.”

A member of the SUNY charter school committee also voiced doubts. Eric Corngold said he’s not convinced that there is a “need” for the changes and worries about the “consequences” of the proposal.

“I’m very concerned about the creation of two tiers of teachers,” said Corngold, who added less-qualified charter school teachers would not have the choice of changing jobs to teach in a public school later on.

Corngold said he thinks charter schools have been successful because of the quality of the teachers and their training.

The public has until Sept. 9 to weigh in on the proposal. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.