Ray Domanico joins City Journal associate editor Seth Barron to discuss charter schools in New York City, the growing protests by education workers across the country, and Democrats’ weakening support for charters.

In teachers' unions protests from West Virginia to California, activists claim that the growth of charters has come at the expense of district schools.

New York City's charter school students significantly outperform their state and local peers, and minority children from struggling families benefit most: over 80% of charter students are low-income, and 91% are African-American or Hispanic. But under current state law, only seven more charters can be created in the city before a mandatory cap on their number is met.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Coming up on the show today, I talk with Ray Domanico about charter schools in New York City, teachers strikes, and more. But one announcement before we get started: If you are a listener in the New York area and you like following policy developments in city and state, why not subscribe to our newsletter, “The Beat"? You’ll get insight on housing, education, homelessness, infrastructure, and more delivered right to your inbox three times a week. You can find it at www.thebeatmi.com. That’s it for now. My conversation with Ray begins after this.

Seth Barron: Hi everyone. Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. New York City is the country's largest school district with about 1.1 million kids attending public schools. 10% of those kids, however, attend charter schools, which have been around for about 20 years in New York. Charter schools, both locally and nationally, have been very much in the news lately and I am joined today by an expert on the subject to talk about it. Ray Domanico is Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute. His latest issue brief for MI is called "Lift the Cap: Why New York City needs more Charter Schools." Thanks for joining us, Ray.

Ray Domanico: Happy to be here.

Seth Barron: Ray, what, what's the cap? Uh, what's the, why is there a limit on charter schools in New York?

Ray Domanico: So ever since the Legislature first allowed the creation of charter schools in 1999, uh, there has always been a cap because at first they were viewed as sort of an experimental approach. That cap has been lifted a number of times in the intervening years, but currently, uh, the city is up against its cap. There 236 charters in New York City. Right now, there are seven slots open, but those will be taken by the end of this year. So unless the Legislature acts to either raise or eliminate the cap on charter schools, there'll be no ability to create more charter schools in the city.

Seth Barron: Well, what's the controversy? Who's opposed to charter schools?

Ray Domanico: Uh, largely a teachers' unions are opposed to it. Uh, there are some advocates for public education. Particularly, those who argue that we should be spending more on the district schools don't seem to like the attention that, uh, the charter schools are getting. My brief speaks to what the common arguments are against charter schools and debunks them all.

Seth Barron: Well, what are some of the common arguments? I mean, I've heard that charter schools suck resources from the community and from the district schools.

Ray Domanico: Uh, nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that for every child who enrolls in a charter school, approximately $14,000, uh, that's the state tuition amount, comes out of the DOE's, the Department of Education's budget to fund, uh, to follow that child to the charter school. But in no means does this mean that the, uh, the district schools are hurting for money. Since 2007, the enrollment in charter schools in the city is up by over 100,000 students. And yes, currently $2 billion is being spent on charter schools in New York City. But in those same years, the money that's left over for the Department of Education to run at schools is up seven and a half billion dollars against a very flat enrollment. So they're getting more money per student. And I would just point to the fact that the current mayor has been, no, no fan of charters has been able to fund his significant, uh, programs. He's established universal pre-kindergarten in the city. That's a costly item. And he signed two rather generous teacher contracts in recent years.

Seth Barron: But don't charter schools generally serve… I mean I've heard that they, they cream or cherry pick the best students leaving district schools to educate the hard cases. So that's really not fair for the, for the UFT, for the, for the Teacher's Union.

Ray Domanico: That's the most common complaint that people have made. It does not stand up to scrutiny. Research out of Temple University a few years ago did a study of charter schools and their impact on schools in the surrounding neighborhood and as charter schools were growing in certain neighborhoods, the researchers there did not find any negative impact in terms of the the surrounding public schools serving needier children. People also talk about the attrition rate, uh, uh, students leaving the charter schools. And the assumption that that the opponents of charter schools make is that when a child leaves a charter school, it's because they're being kicked out and perhaps because they're low performing. Attrition is as it's called, is very common in urban schools. People move around a lot. Uh, you know, the city's independent budget office has looked at this and found, yes there is attrition in charter schools, but it's no greater, in fact, it's less than the attrition in the surrounding public schools.

Seth Barron: So why is it that parents want to send their kids to charter schools? What I mean do charter schools have some kind of special advantage, do they get all kinds of private money? Uh, are they just teaching to the test to ensure that the kids do well on the tests, whereas district schools provide a more, um, holistic, uh, you know, pedagogy? What's the appeal? What do, what do they offer?

Ray Domanico: So it's worth noting first the charter schools serve a very particular part of the population. In New York City, 80% of the students are low-income. They come from low-income families and over 91% are either black or Hispanic. Charter schools have grown in the city in neighborhoods where for many years the Department of Education has not been able to provide adequate schooling for children. So as these schools have been opening up, uh, parents in those low lower-income communities, communities of color have been flocking to charter schools. That's what this is all about. And before getting into the, into the stats, I think it's important to note that at this point, you know, the the popularity and the fact that parents are voluntarily placing their children in the school should be honored by the Mayor and by the Legislature and by those in political power. People like charter schools because they deem them to be orderly and safe. They also see much higher achievement levels. In New York City, uh, um, as my study points out on the most recent state examinations, black students are doing 24 points better in New York City charter schools than in the average across the state for charter, uh, for, for black students. And in terms of scoring at the highest level of the test, actually getting, not simply getting over the proficiency bar, but getting to excellence, a black student is four times more likely to attain that level as they would be in other public schools in the rest of New York state. So people are flocking because these, these schools are working.

Seth Barron: There you're comparing black kids in the city schools in city charter schools to black kids in district schools across the state. Is that a fair comparison or should it just be, how about, two black kids in the city? Do they? Um,

Ray Domanico: So one of the, one of the points that I make in my brief is that charter schools in New York City and their growth, uh, there is no evidence that they've been harming the public school system. And I point out that, uh, you know, where charter schools are right now, uh, New York City charter schools are doing better than the average for the rest of the state of all races of kids. Okay. It's not true that this has come at the expense of the New York City public schools. In fact, the second story here is that New York City public schools have been improving over the last 10 years and they have greatly closed the gap with the rest of New York state. New York City used to lag well behind upstate and the suburbs and now they've caught up.

Seth Barron: Oh, I see. I was thinking that maybe it went the other way. Um, all right, well let's, on the national stage right, there, there's been a number of, um, labor disputes with teachers going on strike in West Virginia and California, I think in Colorado. Um, and I believe some of this has to do with charters. Uh, and it seems like the teachers' unions are winning. Can you explain what's going on?

Ray Domanico: So I view the the recent, um, activism on the part of teacher unions since the spring, since the Janus decision, uh, came down, really largely in political terms. Okay. I think the Los Angeles teacher strike, uh, was indicative of this, uh, the union could have gotten in Los Angeles the economic settlement that they got without a strike. It was on the table. They struck over issues of policy and in their case, particularly charter schools. This was also true last week in West Virginia where the teacher's stroke and, and in other places, as you say, and I think this is part of a broad reaction that's happened within democratic circles against the Obama Administration's, uh, preferred educational policies. Teachers' unions have always been very strongly democratic. They provide campaign contributions and they provide manpower, uh, to, uh, you know, to the campaigns. But during the Obama years, uh, many centrist Democrats joined by some Republicans as well, uh, began endorsing initiatives like charter schools and others, merit pay and other reform strategies and they seem to be a, you know, running counter to the wishes of the teachers' unions. And so I, I view what's going on largely as an attempt by the National Teacher's Union to sort of claw back their influence in the Democratic Party. There's an, there's a new generation of rising leftist or Progressive Democrats and they have been supporting the charter. Uh, the, the, uh, I'm sorry, the, the teacher's unions in these, in these, uh, uh, discussions, a lot of, uh, six or seven of the Democrats who have announced running for President endorsed what Los Angeles Teacher's Union wanted to, uh, accomplish. So I think this is about solidifying their power, uh, or gaining it back in the, uh, and the Democratic Party. Uh, I think it may also be partially a response to Janus and that, uh, it may, it runs counter to what many people thought would be the impact, but now that unions are voluntary, people can, can pull out, they can't be forced to pay dues, that does create sort of an incentive for the leadership of the Union to foment this type of activism to solidify, uh, you know, the commitment that their members have to the union.

Seth Barron: Sure. Yes. Because while, part of the Democratic base is, you know, unions, public sector unions, teachers, uh, another core segment of the Democratic base is, um, you know, urban black people who tend to be the ones who like to send their kids to charter schools at least in New York City. So it's a curious schism.

Ray Domanico: Yes, I've, commented in some of my recent writings that, I think this is short-sighted on the part of the unions. I think they need to acknowledge and honor the choice is that black and Latino parents are making largely in big cities around their support for charter schools. And I think if they would do that, they would have a greater opportunity to build a broader coalition to support all forms of public education, both district schools and charter schools.

Seth Barron: So coming back to Albany, um, Cuomo, Governor Cuomo in the past came out very strongly in support of charter schools and now it seems like he's mended fences with the UF with the State Teacher's Union. Um, where do Speaker Heastie and Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Cuomo, all fall out at, at this point on, on the question?

Ray Domanico: Uh, the governor has changed his position from recent years, partially, I think has to do with the power dynamics in Albany. Uh, as you know, and as your listeners know, uh, previously the Republicans controlled the state senate. So when the decisions were being made, the Governor had at least one ally out of the three people who would get to the vote on this, uh, supporting charters. Uh, Senator Stewart-Cousins does not seem to be a supporting charters. She hasn't said yet, uh, what she plans to do in terms of this charter cap. Uh, it's made difficult by the fact that both the Mayor and the Chancellor of the New York City schools have announced that they believe we have enough charters. Right? So I think the Governor right now is sort of feeling his way in this new political environment in Albany. If he doesn't come out and make this an issue, there's probably a little chance that the cap will be raised. But it's all is not lost. I mean, strange things happen in Albany in the late spring every year, so that's for sure.

Seth Barron: Don't forget to check out Ray Domanico's work at www.city-journal.org and at Manhattan Institute, manhattan-institute.org. We would love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Ray, thanks again for joining us.

Ray Domanico: Thank you.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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