NYC Charter School Skips Regs on Universal Pre-K Funding

MANHATTAN (CN) — Dealing a blow to one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiatives, a New York appellate court paved the way for a charter school to accept money from the city’s universal pre-K program without complying with its regulations.

Now in its third year, New York City’s universal pre-K program fulfilled one of de Blasio’s campaign promises when it first opened to 4-year-olds in 2014.

The mayor touted its successes and expanded the program to 3-year-olds this past April.

But Success Academy Charter Schools – New York City’s largest charter school network – has been reluctant to get in line with the city’s vision, even if it is eager to gobble up its dollars.

In October 2015, the New York Daily News reported that Success Academy’s CEO Eva Moskowitz threatened a lawsuit if the city forced the school to sign a contract putting it under the Department of Education’s oversight.

Elaine De Vera, whose son was enrolled at the school’s pre-K class at the time, later became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Judge Raymond Elliott III found last year that state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s decision to require compliance to receive funds was not arbitrary or capricious, but the state’s Appellate Division, Third Department overruled that decision on Thursday.

Writing for the unanimous five-judge panel, Judge William McCarthy commented that the city’s regulations were quite extensive.

“[T]he contract sets forth requirements with respect to various aspects of a prekindergarten program, including, as relevant here, curriculum, students’ uses of digital devices, field trips, meals, daily schedule of the program, students’ activities and exercise, staff qualifications and training, record keeping for students’ attendance and the ownership of documents generated in connection with the program providers’ performance of their obligations pursuant to the contract,” he wrote in a 10-page opinion.

The panel found that the contract left little room for Success Academy to forge its own path.

“The pre-K contract mandated, down to the minute, the daily amount of time that students were to have access to certain educational materials,” McCarthy continued. “It also limited, to 15 minutes, students’ daily use of digital devices, including computers and televisions.”

The court found that state education law “unambiguously” granted charter schools a freer hand in pre-K education.

That law gave the charter schools responsibility for “all such monitoring, programmatic review and operational requirements.”

“The plain meaning of the provision in no way indicates that another entity — such as a school district – holds concurrent responsibility or authority in this regard, let alone superior authority,” the opinion states.

Moskowitz, the charter school’s leader, called upon the de Blasio administration to comply with the court’s ruling.

“Sadly, the de Blasio’s administration’s refusal to comply with the law prevented Success Academy from offering pre-K for two years so hundreds of students were deprived of a Success Academy pre-K education,” she said in a statement. “City Hall’s effort to impose red tape on our schools without authority shows that the de Blasio administration has never really embraced the idea that charter schools are supposed to be independent of the district school system.”

“We are disappointed and reviewing our options,” New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci said in a statement about the ruling.

If the city does not pursue further appeal, the case will return to Commissioner Elia, who must follow the appellate court’s instructions.

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