NY uses prevailing wage to nix charter schools

Organized labor has state gov't by the shorthairs

Ten years ago, New York joined the charter school revolution by passing a law to allow these innovative public schools to open. Today there are nearly 100 charters in the state and dozens more in the pipeline. But now, thanks to the state's Department of Labor and a labor-friendly state judge, building a new charter school just got a lot harder and a lot more expensive.

Charter schools are built on a simple idea. In exchange for less state funding and a mandate on performance, charters are exempt from many high-cost regulations that hamstring traditional public schools.

Tapestry Charter School in central Buffalo has accepted that bargain and has excelled. It has served lower- and middle-income students since it opened its doors in 2001. Today it has about 350 students and, like most charters, outperforms district public schools on state tests. With smaller class sizes, more individual attention, longer school days and a longer academic calendar, students at Tapestry receive nearly two years more of instruction by the time they enter high school than students in other schools.

Recently, Tapestry won approval to add high school grades, and this is where the trouble started. To accommodate these new grades as well as serve the other students, the school decided to build a new building. It expected to pay about $8.5 million.

But last autumn, as a sop to labor unions, Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith ordered charter schools to adhere to state "prevailing wage" requirements, which mandate paying union wages for construction projects and which typically add 30% or more to the cost of a project. In Tapestry's case, it would add more than $1.5 million, putting the school's building expansion plans on hold.

Since their inception, charter schools had been exempt from this state law which, like its federal counterpart, the Davis-Bacon Act, applies to most public-works projects. Last month, however, state trial judge Michael Lynch upheld the new mandate, erroneously applying labor law to charter schools beyond anything intended by the legislature or precedent. The case is on appeal and will likely be overturned, but that could take years.

"Critics say there aren't enough charter high schools, but this latest hit makes it near impossible to afford to build one," Joy Pepper, Tapestry's co-founder and director, said. "How can it be good public policy for the state to raise the cost of school buildings when we get no capital money to begin with? It's the students they're hurting."

This ruling is an egregious example of the withering autonomy of charter schools. Charters successfully educate students on 70% of the funding spent by district school competitors. But the state's education bureaucracy, legislature and now the courts are all piling on regulatory burdens.

Before prevailing wages were imposed, Elmwood Village Charter School, a few blocks from Tapestry in the Allentown section of Buffalo, was able to renovate a long-abandoned building, helping to revitalize the neighborhood. "There is no way we could afford this state-of-the-art building and serve our students if we were forced to pay another 25% [because of] prevailing wage," John Sheffield, the school's director, said. "There wouldn't be a charter school here, and our kids would remain in district schools at an academic disadvantage, frankly."

In Albany, the Brighter Choice Foundation built a KIPP charter middle school -- absent prevailing wage -- for less than $7 million. It took only nine months and won praise from Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings, who said, "It's a beautiful facility, one that anyone would be proud to send a child to." By contrast, the Albany school district spent about $40 million to build a new middle school, thanks to prevailing-wage and other mandates.

The Brighter Choice Foundation wants to build other charter schools, including Albany's first public all-girls high school. That will be much more difficult if it has to adhere to prevailing-wage mandates. "If they don't fix this, artificially higher costs will guarantee that fewer students in needy urban districts will be ready for college," said Chris Bender, the foundation's director.

The charter school movement in New York, after thriving for nearly a decade, faces an uncertain future if the state continues pushing charters to be more like the failed bureaucratic schools from which charter students fled. Prevailing wage is one way to stop the charter revolution in its tracks -- which may be the point, sadly.

- Amy H. Friedman is co-founder and chairperson of Tapestry Charter School. Peter Murphy is policy director of the New York Charter Schools Association.


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