New York’s Legislature is unmoved by the desperate desire of city families to have access to more high-quality charter schools. Lawmakers’ reluctance to lift the unconscionable cap on charter-school creation — and indeed the cap’s very existence — is based on notions that simply aren’t true, however: that charters harm the city’s district-run public schools and divert funds from those schools’ students.
Let’s review the facts, all publicly available from the city’s Independent Budget Office. Between 2006-07 and 2020-21, enrollment in the city’s charter schools increased by 123,000 students, or almost 800%. During the same period, per-pupil spending at the Department of Education increased by more than $12,000, or 71%. Even after adjusting for inflation, the spending hike was more than $4,800, almost 20%.
Yes, it’s true that $2.7 billion passes through the Department of Education’s budget to charters, which use it to educate more than 136,000 students. But charter schools are not unique in getting money from the DOE’s budget.
This year, the department is paying out more than $3 billion to private and nonprofit schools to educate students with special needs and to provide pre-kindergarten for the city’s youngest students.
No one has called for a cap on that spending; nor should they. The city and state recognize that the best services and expertise are sometimes found outside the traditional school system, and they are willing to pay for it. Somehow that recognition is not extended to charter schools, which get less spending per pupil but better results.
Enrollment has been dropping in DOE schools, but the timing indicates the drop is unrelated to charter-school expansion. From 2007 to 2017, charter enrollment grew by more than 89,000 students, but enrollment in district-run schools fell by only 6,000. Since then, the bottom has been dropping out of DOE schools, which are down by more than 80,000 students while charters are up by over 33,000.
COVID closures have played a role in the decline in district schools, as has the city’s falling birth rate. But as city Chancellor David Banks has noted, families are “voting with their feet,” and fewer of them have been seeing what they want in the DOE’s schools.
The facts regarding charter schools’ student bodies and their performance are well known but worth restating. More than half the students in the city’s charter schools are black, and more than 40% are Hispanic. A quarter of all black students in the city are enrolled in charter schools, and another 8% are in private and religious schools.
The families of these students have been avoiding the district schools for good reasons. Even before the onset of the COVID disruptions, the picture of achievement for black students in the DOE’s schools was sobering; 30.1% scoring at Level 1, the lowest level on the state’s test of English language arts and 41.7% at that level in mathematics. Overall only 36.8% of the DOE’s black students scored proficient, level 3 or 4, in ELA and 29.5% did so in math.
In charter schools, 58.1% of black students scored at Level 3 or 4, deemed “proficient,” in ELA and 63.9% did so in math. Most remarkably, the DOE’s schools tested more than three times as many black males as did charters, yet the charter sector saw more black males score at the highest level, 4, of the test in math than the DOE schools did. A full 30% of all black males in charter schools scored a 4 on the math test, while only 8% of black males in the district schools did so.
Finally, it is well known that the city’s largest charter network, Success Academy, has been able to outperform the state’s wealthiest suburban districts on the examinations. Success shares its curricula freely on its Web site. District schools should be learning from it. Some other charter networks in the city, particularly the Classical Charter Schools in the South Bronx, have done so, and their performance has begun to rival that of Success.
The ball is in the Legislature’s court. It can drop its misinformed cap on city charter schools or it can stand by while families continue to leave town in search of viable educational options for their children. More charter schools will complement and enhance the work of the many fine district schools in the city, not harm them. It’s time for lawmakers to stand up for the city’s kids and families.
Ray Domanico is a senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.