Students line up for a chance to enroll in Democracy Prep, which has room for only one in six applicants.
Students line up for a chance to enroll in Democracy Prep, which has room for only one in six applicants.

Please, please, please,” whispered the boy sitting to my left in the crowded auditorium, clenching his fists. Clearly too young for the sixth grade, he seemed to be praying for his brother, who sat nearby. If the brother’s name was called from the podium, he would begin sixth grade next year at Democracy Prep, a four-year-old Harlem charter school. The odds were against it: a few days earlier, the 205 names being announced had been randomly drawn from a pool of 1,250 applicants. But finally it happened. “Yes!” the boys’ mother yelped, smothering Democracy Prep’s newest student in a bear hug. The younger brother beamed.

Still, most people’s prayers weren’t answered that day. Once the final name was called, disappointment weighed heavily on the faces of the unlucky. Nothing less was at stake than the future of 1,250 children. Democracy Prep’s was the last of the charter-school lotteries for the entering class of 2010, which will be known within the school as the “College Class of 2021.” Most students whose names weren’t called will enter one of Harlem’s dreadful traditional public schools, from which they’re as likely to drop out as graduate.

So for children whose parents can’t afford to pay private-school tuition or move to neighborhoods with good public schools, a simple roll of the dice determines whether or not they will get a quality education. That is horribly unfair to the losers. But the lotteries are proving how good New York City’s charter schools are—and helping fuel the charters’ growth in Gotham.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that operate free from many of the bureaucratic restrictions imposed by state and district policies and by collective-bargaining agreements with teachers. New York City has nearly 100 charter schools in all five boroughs, but most cluster into a few neighborhoods. Charters enroll about 15 percent of Harlem students, for instance, even though they serve less than 3 percent of children citywide.

The lotteries are necessary because demand for charter-school seats far exceeds supply. By law, enrollment is determined randomly—with students who live in the local school district getting preference—whenever a charter school receives more applicants than it has available seats. That was the case for all but one of the city’s charter schools last year.

The lottery mechanism varies by school. The Harlem Village Academies blindly pick index cards with children’s names and contact information out of a box. Democracy Prep and the Harlem Success Academies use a computerized random-number generator. An independent auditor oversees each school’s lottery, and statistical tests in past years have confirmed that these are indeed random draws. Most schools now conduct their lotteries privately, either because they want to avoid the media attention or because they can’t stand seeing the pain on the faces of kids whose names aren’t called. (Newark mayor Cory Booker, a charter-school supporter, is so greatly affected by the lotteries that he refuses to attend any more of them.)

Democracy Prep, however, continues to hold a public lottery, intent on showing the world thousands of flesh-and-blood parents desperate to get their children into better schools. My conservative estimate is that more than one-third of all fifth-graders enrolled in public schools in Harlem’s District 5 entered Democracy Prep’s lottery this year.

A family rejoices after winning a spot at Democracy Prep, the top-performing school in Harlem.

What motivates Harlem’s parents and children to apply in such numbers to Democracy Prep is a chance to trade up from one of the city’s lousiest middle schools to one of its best. Many of the students in Democracy Prep’s lottery are zoned for a traditional public middle school called the Academy of Collaborative Education (ACE). According to the metric that New York City uses to evaluate its schools—a complicated mixture of student test scores and school environment—ACE is the city’s single worst middle school.

Given a choice, no sane person would send a child to ACE. In the New York City Department of Education’s annual survey last year, when asked to evaluate the statement “I feel safe in my school,” 79 percent of ACE’s teachers “strongly disagreed,” while the remaining 21 percent just plain disagreed. The teachers were right to worry: ACE had qualified as a “persistently dangerous” school, according to the standards that New York State has established under the No Child Left Behind act. To achieve that designation, a school must experience at least six “serious” incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Serious incidents include such offenses as homicide, robbery, assault resulting in serious physical injury, and use of a weapon.

Many believe that schools like ACE have such toxic environments because the students who attend them are monsters created by poverty and racism. But if that were true, you might expect Democracy Prep to be equally dangerous: its main campus sits directly across the street from ACE; the lottery’s preference for children in the local district ensures that most students in the two schools are neighbors; and Seth Andrew, Democracy Prep’s founder, estimates that about half of ACE’s current students entered his school’s lottery in past years. Nevertheless, in the city’s survey, all of Democracy Prep’s teachers agreed that they felt safe in school.

According to the city’s metric, moreover, Democracy Prep is the highest-performing school in Harlem and among the 20 highest-performing middle schools in the entire city. And a commercial test that the school recently administered showed that its average student entered sixth grade reading at about the fifth-grade level and finished the year at nearly the eighth-grade level.

Democracy Prep doesn’t boast a special curriculum, fancy classroom-management techniques, or smaller-than-average class sizes. Its success—like that of many good charter schools—has three primary ingredients: efficient use of funds, a culture of high expectations, and a “no excuses” approach to school discipline.

Democracy Prep, like other city charters, spends about as much per pupil as the surrounding district public schools do: though it doesn’t receive capital funds from the state, it makes up the difference in philanthropic contributions and by locating the sixth grade in a public school virtually rent-free. But the school’s charter status allows it to use its resources more wisely than the district schools do. Democracy Prep saves money by employing many young teachers, substituting 401(k)-style plans for the gold-plated, defined-benefit pensions bestowed in the traditional public sector, and eliminating administrative bloat. Thanks to these savings, the school can pay its teachers 10 percent above the traditional public school pay scale. The school also has money left over to provide students with enriching activities: before they graduate, Democracy Prep’s kids, many of whom had rarely ventured out of their neighborhood, will have visited more than 75 college campuses and set foot on five continents. Again, all of this is done for about the same amount of money that advocates for traditional public schools say is insufficient to purchase even basic resources.

The second key to the school’s success is its culture of excellence. As its name suggests, Democracy Prep teaches students that it’s their responsibility to be active, engaged, and educated citizens. The school’s motto stresses this message: “Work Hard. Go to College. Change the World!” At Democracy Prep, every adult is dedicated to sending every child to college—an attitude few would claim is widespread in the city’s traditional public schools in poor neighborhoods. Teachers who don’t believe that goal is reachable or are unwilling to do what’s necessary to achieve it don’t get hired, and those who manage to slip through the cracks don’t last long. The college expectation permeates the atmosphere: homerooms are named after universities, usually the teacher’s alma mater, and college banners from across the nation adorn the hallways. Since the school’s first cohort hasn’t reached graduation yet, we can’t know for sure how many of these children will graduate and go to college. But their test scores and the look in their eyes suggest that their prospects are far more promising than those of their peers at ACE.

The teachers live the culture of high expectations and accountability just as much as the students do. A principal in a typical public school observes his teachers in action once or twice a year, but administrators at Democracy Prep pop their heads into classrooms every day. And great teachers often jump at the chance to work in a school that pushes excellence. Last year, 4,000 teachers applied for about 20 openings at Democracy Prep.

Discipline is the final and perhaps most important element of the school’s success. Democracy Prep is one of several exceptional charter schools that apply the “no excuses” model pioneered by the Knowledge Is Power Program, which now operates 82 charter schools in 19 states, including two in New York City. At Democracy Prep, kids sit at their desks and are expected to work at all times. They walk from one classroom to another quickly, quietly, and under adult supervision. The disciplinary policy is based on the Broken Windows approach that has worked wonders in big-city policing: the school deals with small infractions seriously and creates an environment in which major violations are simply unthinkable. On the day I visited Democracy Prep, the school took the uncommon step of requiring the sixth-graders to eat lunch in absolute silence because they had been “mean” to one another recently. I felt no need to ask whether weapons had been involved in the meanness. During lunch at ACE, by contrast, kids scream, basketballs bounce, and young boys run around unchecked.

Children seem happier in Democracy Prep’s safe, structured environment, too. When you stroll through the school’s hallways, you can feel curiosity, security, and even joy—a far cry from the noise and aggression that characterize ACE.

When critics of charter schools see places like Democracy Prep, they tend to respond with two arguments. The first is that Democracy Prep isn’t typical. A few charter schools may be stellar, the critics admit, but most don’t help children any more than traditional schools do.

In New York City, at least, that argument doesn’t hold water. A recent study by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby found that about 45 percent of Gotham’s charter-school students attend charters that have a positive influence on English proficiency, relative to the public schools that their students would have attended otherwise, of between 0.1 and 0.2 standard deviations (read “large difference”); for 31 percent of the students, it’s more than 0.2 standard deviations (read “enormous difference”). Meanwhile, 16 percent attend charters that are roughly on par with their previous public schools, and only 8 percent attend charters that are worse. Hoxby’s results in math were only slightly less positive.

The critics—led by the local teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—focus on the few charters that are seriously underperforming, demanding that the city shut them down. That may indeed be the right approach with those schools, but the teachers’ union is endorsing a glaring double standard, it’s worth pointing out. When the city recently tried to close ACE and 18 other failing public schools, the UFT filed a lawsuit to keep them open, raising procedural objections to the closures. If a state Supreme Court judge hadn’t ruled in the UFT’s favor, last year’s entering class of sixth-graders would have been the last to endure the mayhem within ACE’s walls.

The critics’ second argument is that charters’ impressive performance is a mirage. The reason that New York charter schools report better educational outcomes than traditional public schools, they say, is that the charters attract students with higher proficiency levels. The critics claim that charters are really no more effective than the traditional schools; they’re just starting with better students.

Ironically, what allows charter-school advocates to rebut that argument is the very lotteries that will one day, they hope, be unnecessary. The charters’ random-selection policy has allowed Hoxby’s team to evaluate them with a randomized field trial (RFT), the kind of experiment often described by social scientists as the “gold standard” in research design. RFTs resemble the clinical trials performed by pharmaceutical companies, which test a new drug by assembling a pool of subjects, randomly assigning subjects to receive either the drug or a placebo, and then comparing the subjects’ condition. Similarly, Hoxby took a pool of subjects (students applying to New York City charter schools); took advantage of the random nature of the lotteries, which assigned the subjects either to charters or to traditional public schools; and then compared their academic achievement. Because access to a charter school is the only meaningful difference between the two groups—both applied to charter schools, after all—comparing the groups’ later achievement really will tell us what effect charters have on student performance.

The RFT yielded unambiguously positive results. For the average applicant, the study’s authors showed, winning a spot in a charter school in kindergarten leads to academic gains that close most of the test-score gap between the average student in Harlem and the average student in Scarsdale—a wealthy New York City suburb known for its high-performing schools—by the end of eighth grade. The charter-school critics have offered scant rebuttal to this remarkable finding, preferring to cite a study by another Stanford professor, Margaret Raymond, which found wide variation in charter-school performance nationwide. But when Raymond studied New York City’s charter schools, she found results similar to Hoxby’s. Many think that the reason that New York does better than the rest of the country is the state’s tough charter-authorization process.

It turns out that charter-school lotteries aren’t merely useful statistical tools; they also make for gripping theater, as two new documentaries demonstrate. In The Lottery, which opened at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring, first-time filmmaker Madeleine Sackler follows four kids hoping to be selected in the Harlem Success Academies’ lottery. And Waiting for “Superman,” in theaters this fall, offers the best evidence to date that charter schools are no longer a reform sought by conservatives alone: the film was directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame, and it will be distributed and publicized by a major studio, Paramount. The climax of both films arrives when students learn their fate at the charter-school lotteries. They’re suspenseful moments: viewers know that these are real children, some of whom may not get another chance for success in life.

Luckily, charters are expanding rapidly in New York. This spring—after a heated, yearlong battle in which the Hoxby study was repeatedly cited—the New York State Legislature raised the cap on the state’s allowed number of charters from 200 to 460. With another 114 charter schools expected to open in New York City in the next four to five years and current schools continuing to expand, charters could soon serve as many as 10 percent of Gotham’s kids and the lion’s share of students in low-income neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx.

Random chance shouldn’t determine whether Harlem children go to great schools or broken ones. But thanks to random chance, we can say that the benefits accruing to New York students from charter schools are no longer in dispute. And the expansion of charters in New York City brings us a little closer to realizing what only recently seemed an impossible dream: a good education for all children that doesn’t depend on the luck of the draw.


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