New York City’s charter schools are on the upswing as traditional public schools in the nation’s largest system endure a dangerous period of student loss and funding gaps.
Schools have recruited more than 10,000 children during the pandemic, but expansion has slowed even as enrollment at other schools in the city – both public and private – has dropped steadily over the past year.
Mayor Eric Adams has been more open to concessions than his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, who at times publicly struggled with concession leaders in the city. The mayor’s campaign was supported by charter school advocates, and several top officials in the education department were alumni of the Bloomberg administration who helped kickstart the city’s charter school movement.
It looks like an auspicious moment for the charter industry in New York, which has grown from a nascent movement in the 2000s to a force of more than 250 schools. Governor Kathy Hochul said last month that she would be willing to allow more contracts to be opened for the first time.
However, concession agreements still face significant headwinds, as most Democrat lawmakers are adamantly opposed to allowing any form of school expansion, partly because they are concerned this will be to the detriment of traditional district schools. Their skepticism has hindered the growth of the industry in recent years, restricting the industry’s location in New York far more than in many major cities, including Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Teacher unions are also important political players and disapprove of schools that tend not to unionise.
Principal Ana Collado works with a student during a class at Zeta Charter School in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. Credit… Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times
Their success in attracting new students could intensify the struggle for expansion as New York City schools scrap a dwindling pot of funds.
“We’re in an interesting place where we can make some progress,” said Stacey Gauthier, interim executive director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools and principal of Renaissance Charter School in Queens, one of the city’s oldest charter schools. “But I’m not sure things will go that fast. We have a long way to go politically in Albany.”
State-funded but privately run charter schools educate about 13 percent of New York City’s children. Overall enrollment, up from around 113,000 students in 2017, rose to just under 140,000 last school year as many schools opened new classes.
District schools have historically enrolled more than 1 million students, but have lost more than a tenth of their students during that time and now enroll around 903,000 students. The rate of decline has slowed, according to preliminary data, but the system lost 1.8 percent of its students last year.
Across the country, traditional public school districts have experienced large dropouts associated with declining birth and immigration rates. According to the education department, more than 57,000 children in New York City left the city last year alone to go to other counties or states.
Parochial schools and independent private institutions also lost students.
The education ministry said students switching to charter school were not the primary reason for these declines, but that nearly 15,000 children moved from traditional public schools to charter schools last year. Other students have dropped out, so the number of students in schools has increased by only about 1 percent last year, the smallest increase in recent history by far. State officials will release full enrollment data for the current year this winter.
Many contracts are still being built, for example by adding new primary school classrooms or secondary schools. Without these expansions, the industry’s overall registration to the pandemic would have been mostly flat or low, similar to private schools, according to the data.
In other cities, such as Chicago and Oakland, California, which lost significant numbers of students even before the pandemic, fierce local fighting erupted as traditional public schools were forced to close as contracts continued to expand. Families and teachers’ unions argued that contract growth was at the expense of district schools, as funding often followed students.
Contracts have also come under criticism over the years for their financial transparency and findings that some tend to exclude certain high-need groups, such as students with disabilities. They were also criticized for their rigid approach to discipline, suspension of school and keeping students from grades.
In New York, a statewide cap on the number of rentals prevented schools from growing exponentially. John Liu, a Queens Democrat who chairs the State Senate’s New York City education committee, said the proliferation of contracts would be “disastrous” for district schools, adding that he “was not presented with any convincing arguments” for raising the cap.
“Do we have more tax dollars to channel into charter schools?” said Mr. Liu. “I do not think so.”
But some families in New York have clamored for greater access to contracts that often outperform district schools in math and reading on state standardized exams, but results often vary widely between schools. The vast majority of Charter students are Black and Hispanic, and approximately two-thirds of Chartered students are in Brooklyn and the Bronx. About two-thirds of children in district schools are Black or Hispanic.
Faced with criticism, some statutes have softened features that were once controversial hallmarks of schools. The strict classroom standards and strict discipline rules, known as the “no excuses” model, have been replaced in many networks with a stronger emphasis on “all the child”.
The changes have helped alleviate concerns among some parents.
Recently, two dozen sophomores gathered at a Zeta charter school near Inwood—part of a young and growing network of four schools in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx—to practice breathing exercises in room 101. The children then focused on a single word that reflected their feelings from the afternoon.
Jia, a young girl, had not seen her father in days while traveling in Florida. She was hard to focus on school considering how much you missed her, she. So her teacher asked the class: Will a volunteer check on Jia by the end of the week?
Most of the 7-8 year olds came alive and eagerly raised their hands in the air.
“They talk more about their feelings,” said Dennise Ramirez, whose 8-year-old son Akilles attends a Zeta school. “And I can see the difference in it.”
Her curious son had previously attended PS 187 Hudson Cliffs, the parish school that Mrs. Ramirez attended as a child. But when school was interrupted as the coronavirus spread, he noticed that Akilles seemed disconnected from his classes. She considered her options and decided to move her to Zeta for third grade this fall.
“The approach really caught my attention,” he said. “Especially after the pandemic.”
Contracts that received less funding per student than district schools typically relied on cash flows from private donors like billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who recently donated more than $14 million to two local networks.
But Basil Smikle, a professor of public policy at Hunter College who has served on the boards of several city charter schools and groups, said he wondered if some major supporters would eventually “get tired of giving out the money” in a tense political environment. as environmental and traditional public education struggles.
Contracts have become a hot topic for Democrats after the Trump administration enthusiastically embraced contracts, school choice and privatization, and Mr. Smikle said schools have lost outspoken local champions in neighborhoods like Harlem and the Bronx.
“This larger shift in Black and brown politics in New York is really important to how much the rental industry can grow,” he said.
After reaching the cap set by the State Legislature in 2019, no new charter school licenses were issued in the city for three years. Since then, some key contractual priorities in state budget negotiations have weakened, including efforts to raise the border.
Mr Adams said he believes lawmakers should look into allowing so-called zombie rental licenses to be reissued after schools close. But he did not publicly support removing a cap and rarely spoke about schools in his first year. The mayor has also struggled to advance his agenda in Albany this year and has fallen short on educational priorities in particular.
It remains unclear whether Ms. Hochul, who last month said she believes the cap should be raised, will spend her limited political capital to push for any change. (A governor’s spokesperson, backed by teachers’ unions in the race, did not respond to a request for comment on the details of his position.)
While the road ahead for the industry is likely to remain turbulent, some charter leaders hope new school chancellor David C. Banks can initiate a stable relationship with education officials.
Borrowing various components of the contracts while running his own network of public boys’ schools for low-income Black and Latino boys, Mr. Banks said he himself hopes to find ways to collaborate.
“Many charter schools have something to offer in terms of lessons learned,” said Mr Banks at a recent community meeting of Brooklyn families. “I really want to get us to the ‘us versus them’ point.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.