Since charter school legislation was introduced in New York State in 1998, the sector has grown at a steady clip. One in ten of New York City’s public school students now attend one of 236 charter schools, which enroll 123,000 students—more than the entire public school districts of cities like Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C. Many of these schools—Success Academy, for example—have received plaudits for their ability to improve the academic outcomes of low-income and traditionally underserved youth. But despite this, 57,000 students languish on their waiting lists—and instead of ramping up the supply of spots for qualified applicants, charter expansion in the Big Apple has ground to a halt.
The reason? A citywide charter school cap was finally reached this week. The cap—a statutory limit on the number of charter schools allowed to be opened—was set by legislators in Albany and currently stands at 460 statewide, with a smaller, separate cap set for New York City. Both state authorizers, the New York State Board of Regents and the SUNY Board of Trustees, can issue charters after a long and complex application process provided the total number does not exceed the state—or city—cap. In 2015, NYC’s cap was raised to allow fifty new charter spots (without raising the statewide cap), but they have all since filled. An additional twenty-two spots were then opened (largely from schools that had closed). Earlier this week, that cap too was finally reached in NYC when thirteen charter applications were approved for only seven remaining spots. (The others must wait until a change in legislation, if it ever comes).
A well-timed brief from the Manhattan Institute argues strongly that this cap be lifted, leaning heavily on the state’s own data to make its case. Charter school enrollment in the city is predominantly black and Latino (91 percent) and low-income (80 percent), yet still, these students performed better on New York State tests in math and English language arts than their traditional public school peers across the rest of the state. In 2018, the percentage of NYC charter students who scored “proficient” or better in English exceeded the average of all other public schools in the state by 12.8 points, and by 15.8 points in math. For black students alone, the positive difference was 34.1 points in math and 26.4 points in English. For Latino students, that difference was 26.8 points in math and 20.7 points in English. Similar trends abound for those who scored level 4 (“exceedingly proficient”) particularly in math, with charter students 13.8 percentage points more likely to earn this score than traditional district students across the state. Black students were four times more likely to earn a level 4 score in math; in fact, 40 percent of all black students across the state who earned a level 4 score did so in an NYC charter school.
Despite this success, criticism of the charter sector remains and the cap has persisted. The author, Ray Domanico, refutes many of these charges, including that the sector’s success comes at the expense of traditional district schools. Since 2006, performance gaps in English between the city’s district schools and the rest of the state shrunk from 11 to 2 percentage points, and from 9 to 1 point in math—all while charter enrollment was expanding like wildfire. Another claim, that charters starve district schools of their students, is countered with data showing that the growth in charter school student enrollment since 2006 (107,000 students) does not match the drop in traditional district enrollment (3,300 students); and in fact, the decline in Catholic school enrollment (40,000 students) has been far greater.
Domanico also rebuts the idea that charters “cream-skim” their students, and cites research claiming there were no significant changes in traditional district demographics after the entry of charters to the city. Finally, the brief highlights data demonstrating that charters receive less public funding per pupil than traditional public schools in the city. Furthermore, since 2007, the city’s education budget has grown by $10 billion with charters accounting for only $2 billion of that increase. In all, the city’s budget for traditional district schools has grown—independently—by 52 percent to $7.5 billion since 2007, suggesting charter growth has not had a profoundly negative effect on the district’s finances.
The brief lacks an in-depth comparison of the available research comparing district and charter performance in NYC—besides its use of state data—and it’s certain that both sectors relate to each other in many more complex ways than are expanded upon in this report. Nevertheless, it makes a timely case for revisiting the charter school cap dilemma in New York. Advocates for its removal claim the cap is wholly unnecessary—both the state’s authorizers already have in place a rigorous application process and most applications are rejected—and they believe that the cap’s persistence is largely a matter of politics: Democrats, who control the state and city legislatures, have grown more vocal in their opposition to charter schools and education reform more generally. Nor are these unchartered waters. Albany has increased the state’s charter school cap twice before, in 2007 and 2010.
But perhaps more importantly, the rest of the state currently sits on ninety-nine open charter school spots, which the city cannot access due to its own arbitrary cap—and which the state cannot yet fill—despite state authorizers having already vetted a surplus of qualified applicants in the city. Lifting the charter school cap in New York may be a quagmire in today’s hyper-politicized climate, but at least removing the distinction between state and city when it comes to opening qualified schools is a good place to start.
SOURCE: Ray Domanico, “Lift the Cap: Why New York City Needs More Charter Schools,” Manhattan Institute (February 2019).