New York governor Kathy Hochul has proposed an unprecedented $3 billion hike in state spending on K–12 schools—enough to satiate even the Empire State’s exceptionally well-fed public-education machine. But she’s also poked a beehive by proposing to let more charter schools open in New York City.
Andrew Pallotta, who runs New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), a statewide teachers’ union, expressed “grave concerns” about the governor’s plan. Charters are not “real public schools,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). A year ago, Mulgrew endorsed Hochul’s gubernatorial candidacy, calling her “a steadfast ally in the fight for a better public education” who “at every level . . . has stood up for educators and workers.” Members of the state legislature’s Democrat supermajorities duly followed suit. “While I share NYSUT’s praise of the Governor’s budget as it relates to her commitment to funding our schools, I also share its concerns about the charter school expansion proposal and the financial impact it will have on the state’s public schools,” said Chris Burdick, a Democratic assemblyman representing the Westchester-based 93rd District, one of America’s wealthiest areas, with lavishly funded school districts and zero charters.
For all the clamor about New York City’s school district losing funds, the city currently spends some $29,000 per pupil—by far the highest among the nation’s 100 largest school systems. Even more important, New York’s charter law funds students, not systems. Money follows the child from his or her former district school to the charter. If kids don’t go, a charter isn’t funded and doesn’t open. And if kids don’t keep going, year after year, a charter loses its shirt and closes. Kids attend charters because their parents choose to send them there, not because they’re assigned to the school. It couldn’t be simpler.
Not once in the 25 years since my old boss, New York governor George Pataki, won passage of the state’s charter school law have the teachers’ unions or other anti-choice zealots acknowledged an essential truth: districts have nothing to worry about if parents and kids are happy with their schools. They won’t lose a nickel, and charters will fade away. Yet the minute someone murmurs “charter school,” these same unions and lawmakers expect massive numbers of students to flee district schools as if escaping a tornado. And when families do exercise their right to choose, districts rarely seem to ask themselves why they left, and teachers’ unions never do. Instead, the titans of New York’s educational-industrial complex flex their political muscle and declare that they want the mostly non-unionized interlopers stopped—parents be damned.
For years, they have been effective at swaying the state legislature and controlling the machinery of local political groups that decide things like whether charters can occupy vacant space in district school buildings. Teachers’ unions also exert outsize influence over the state Board of Regents, one of the two governmental bodies that authorize and oversee charters and whose members are appointed by the legislature. (The other is the more charter-friendly State University of New York, whose members are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate.)
More than 180,000 students attend charters in New York State, and roughly 80 percent of them live in New York City’s five boroughs. As part of a 2010 deal to raise the charter school cap from 200 to the current 460, then-governor David Paterson and the legislature agreed to limit charters in New York City to 275. That ceiling was reached several years ago.
This arbitrary cap effectively halted charter growth and, while the process took a few years, slammed the door on public school choice in America’s largest city. In doing so, New York’s political leaders placed themselves between parents and the education their children need and deserve. The overwhelming majority of families in New York City’s charter schools are poor and nonwhite. The Bronx has 94 charters. Brooklyn has 90, according to the New York City Charter Schools Center.
Teachers’ unions and those hooked on their political support knew they could not get rid of charters outright, but imposing this regional cap at least put a lid on the problem. Public school choice in Gotham—and encroachments on union hegemony over the K–12 delivery system—could only go so far.
Of course, the best way to stunt the growth of charters would be to have district schools to which parents want to send their children. That would mean learning-filled classrooms, excellent instruction, orderly and nurturing environments, respect for parents, school leaders willing to go the extra mile, and freedom from an overbearing and politicized bureaucracy. But as we’ve seen in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities, those educational essentials have taken a back seat to preserving labor peace and political support for elected officials.
Expanding charters would give more educational choice to parents of lower-income New York City kids and improve those kids’ chances of building a good life. Four out of five of the 142,500 charter students in New York’s five boroughs are poor. Almost a fifth are classified as special-education students. More schools want to open to help children in similar situations.
Claudia Espinosa is a Bronx mother who founded a mentoring nonprofit called Latinas on the Verge of Excellence, or LOVE. She wants to open a school to reach more young women. Late last month she spoke at a pro-charter rally in her home borough. “At the moment that is not a possibility,” Espinosa said, as reported by the New York Times. “We don’t want to have barriers in their way—they already have enough. We need to allow them the freedom to choose the kind of education they want to receive.”
Espinosa and parents like her have a point. New York City’s schools regularly post dreadful reading and math numbers. When the state made its tests optional in 2021 because of Covid, only a fifth of students took them. Roughly two-thirds of black and Latino students failed reading. More than three in four black and Latino students failed math.
Overall, New York City charter students continue to outperform their peers in city schools by substantial margins. The state last administered non-optional tests in 2019–2020. The differences in results were stark. Charters outperformed district schools in math (59.5 percent proficient to 42.6 percent) and English language arts (57.3 percent proficient to 46.7 percent). According to the Charter Center, charter schools in Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the South Bronx outperformed district schools by large margins in both subjects. And Latino and black New York City charter students outperformed white students in district schools statewide in both English language arts and math.
No wonder charters are gaining students, with enrollment up almost 8 percent since 2020’s Covid-related shutdowns. Meantime, enrollment at city-run schools continues to shrink, down more than 10 percent in the past three years, totaling 903,000 students this year.
Nothing else in Hochul’s February 1 budget submission has generated so much criticism. Notwithstanding a New York Times prediction that lifting the charter cap would “set the stage for a charged battle in the coming months over the future of the city’s school system,” the impact of such a move would be much less dramatic.
Even with the cap removed, charters may never serve more than perhaps a quarter of New York City’s school children. After 25 years and with just 275 schools in operation, charters’ market share remains only 15 percent of all the public school students in the city. Future growth is more likely to come from single-school operators or small three- or four-school networks than it is from the large nonprofit charter networks like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, or even Success Academies.
One October morning 24 years ago, I showed up for my first day as head of SUNY’s brand-new Charter Schools Institute, it’s charter-authorizing office. The hallway was loaded down with 90 applications for new schools; we could approve only 50. We were eager to get the new law implemented and hungry to see new schools open and succeed.
Today, however, winning approval of a new charter school has never been tougher. The Board of Regents is reluctant to approve any new charter, and SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute has some of the nation’s highest standards. About 85 charters remain to open under the statewide cap, plus a few dozen others from schools that have closed over the years. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that all of these open charter slots go to New York City, we’re still looking at a slow trickle of new schools over many years.
This means that even with expansion, charters will barely make a dent in the city’s massive $31.2 billion education budget. And they won’t have any effect on salaries or work rules for the city’s unionized teachers, including those removed from the classroom while under investigation. The union’s collective-bargaining agreement sees to that.
And yet, in response to the proposal to lift the charter cap, a Democrat state senator from Manhattan thundered at a news conference outside City Hall: “The answer is no. The answer is no. The answer is hell no.” Why?
One could reasonably assume the unions and their political partners fear competing with demonstrably successful schools that are free to offer longer days, longer school years, flexible programming, and creative scheduling. Who could blame the unions for trying to beat charters in the backroom when they can’t do it in the classroom?
Photo by Joan Slatkin/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images