New York governor Kathy Hochul has proposed a reasonable and necessary amendment to the state’s unnecessary cap on charter schools. Unfortunately, legislators from her own Democratic Party will continue to do the teachers’ union’s bidding by waging an untruthful campaign against charter schools. Much is at stake here for the city and state’s school children, and for the overall fiscal health of New York; the governor will need to use all her powers to fight the special interests in this battle.
Hochul is not seeking to raise or eliminate the cap on the overall number of charter schools, which will continue to stand at 460. Rather, she wants to remove the geographic sub-limits for New York City and the rest of the state. The city reached its cap in 2019, but the rest of the state has 85 unused slots; Hochul would let those be used anywhere, both inside and outside the city. Further, she wishes to allow the reuse of 21 slots that had been taken by now-closed charter schools across the state. While the state would still cap the number of charter schools in operation at 460, a total of 106 slots would be opened to potential charter school operators statewide.
That 21 charter schools have closed since the establishment of the charter school law 25 years ago speaks to the core issue at play here. When charter schools fail, or even when they fail to attract enough students despite their best efforts, they close. The same is true of religious and private schools; when families abandon them, for whatever reason, they close. Outside of New York and the state’s other four large cities—Buffalo, Yonkers, Rochester, and Syracuse—the average school district has a little over 2,000 students. When those districts lose students, they must close public school buildings out of financial necessity; their limited tax base and generally small enrollment does not allow them to keep inefficiently used buildings open. They prioritize what best serves schoolchildren, not maintaining unneeded buildings or staff.
Compare these fiscal realities with the recent statement by State Senator John Liu (chair of the chamber’s NYC Education committee) that the cap “has historically served to strike the balance between giving parents so-called ‘choice’ and the constitutional requirement to keep public schools open, and it’s not common sense to upset that balance.” Sorry, senator, but Article 11 of New York State’s Constitution contains fewer than 250 words of text, and none prohibits the closing of schools that parents are shunning. It simply charges the legislature to “provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” That cannot be read to require the maintenance of zombie schools.
Liu’s comments reveal the motive behind the opposition to the creation of more charter schools in the city and state, and the reason why such opposition is turning into a last line of defense for the teachers’ union and its political supplicants. New York City and New York State are experiencing staggering enrollment losses. Between 2013 and 2022, enrollment in New York State’s district schools shrunk by 301,678 students, while charter school enrollment grew by 95,379. Most of that growth in charter schools occurred within New York City, which gained 81,027 students in charter schools, while district school enrollment fell by 143,531. Faced with this decline, the Democratic-controlled state legislature has continued to pump more money into the school district, even as it maintains the cap on new charters. Gotham’s city council has successfully prohibited the Department of Education from cutting any individual school budget due to declining enrollment.
Keeping district schools open with such enrollment declines is a defining issue for the majority party in the state legislature and city council. Democrats can’t stop families from leaving the city due to the high cost of living (including high taxes) and poor services, but they can hold the line on creating schools that parents want to send their kids to. Why do charter schools draw Democrats’ ire? They’re almost universally non-union, they use less public funding per pupil, and they get good results with the types of students who languish in the district system. Almost half of all charter school students are black; they make up the largest demographic group in charter schools by far. In fact, 29 percent of all black students in the city attend charters, and another 8 percent go to private or religious schools; after white families, blacks are the group most likely to avoid the district schools. New York City is losing its black community in increasing numbers; perhaps giving more black parents what they want, educationally, would help stem that loss.
Governor Hochul has posed a question to the legislature: What matters most, education or union featherbedding? It’s a shame that she must even ask.
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