Manhattan Institute

Charter School Logjam

Parents want more of them, because they work—but Albany opposition remains stubborn.

The 53,000 mostly minority New York City children now on charter school waiting lists got a boost last month when Governor Andrew Cuomo said that he wants to raise the limit on the number of charters permitted in the city; the cap was reached in early April. Then they got a thumb in the eye from the state assembly, which scotched the governor’s idea. Though his ardor seems to have cooled recently, Cuomo has always supported charter schools. The assembly, by contrast, never has—thus, the charter cap.

New York wouldn’t even have charters—privately run public schools—if then-governor George Pataki hadn’t used a pay raise to entice lawmakers to pass enabling legislation in 1998. From that point on, New York’s public education cartel did everything it could to hobble the enterprise, denying charters full funding relative to standard public schools and working to deprive them of space in underutilized school buildings. Nevertheless, whenever a new charter school opened, it was swiftly over-subscribed. Not all charters flourished, but overall, the movement has been a stunning success organizationally, socially, and academically.

That success is a rebuke to the education philosophy of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Richard Carranza. Both men seem to have given up on the possibility that non-white kids can be educated in conventional schools without white kids somewhere on the premises. “Integrating” New York’s schools is their present fixation. As a practical matter, it’s a prescription for failure: only 15 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public school pupils are white, so what happens when de Blasio and Carranza run out of white kids to shift around?

While the city’s conventional schools run the gamut from occasionally excellent to mostly lousy, its charter schools are almost universally first-rate, though their student bodies are 92 percent minority. If charter school kids can do well without the dubious added value of sitting next to white kids, why have de Blasio and Carranza given up trying to make conventional schools work?

Charter schools’ success demonstrates that minority kids can learn well on their own. And while social circumstances are demonstrably a factor in classroom performance, New York’s charter schools draw their pupils from the same demographic pool as conventional schools—New York City kids at large. Indeed, in one key poverty-sensitive category—eligibility for free school lunches—charter school kids are substantially overrepresented, relative to children from conventional schools. Yet the charter kids thrive.

Parents have noticed. From the outset, demand for charter school desks has been relentless. Placement lotteries have been jammed from the beginning, and today, more than 10 percent of the city’s public school kids—124,000—attend charters. That could go to 15 percent overnight if the artificial cap—now at 236 schools—were to be lifted high enough to accommodate the 50,000-plus kids now on waiting lists. If the cap were discarded altogether, there’s no telling what the migration to charters would look like.

There is, however, little doubt that the impact on the city’s $32.3 billion-a-year Department of Education would be profound. Charters are public schools, but they operate largely unencumbered by DOE regulation and United Federation of Teachers-negotiated work rules. This freedom, and its threat to conventional practices and funding arrangements, largely explains the hostility that charters have encountered for some two decades now. And it underscores the assembly’s response to Cuomo’s tepid promise to lift the charter cap.

“We support raising this artificial cap,” a gubernatorial spokesman told the New York Post last week, “but the legislature needs to agree as well.” To which an assembly aide replied, “[That] isn’t something we are considering.” The assembly is heavily influenced by the teachers’ union, and by UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who said in February: “Our message on charters has not changed . . . the existing cap should remain in place.”

There’s little doubt that it will—serving both as a barrier to educational progress and as a monument to the cynicism of Bill de Blasio’s education policies.

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