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NYT: The Future of New York’s Charter Schools

January 30, 2010

Education is a very big issue in New York, especially given the economic circumstances and the possibility of budget decreases in the near future. As such, I thought I’d share this article from the Times’ webpage about charter schools and what the future holds for them:

Next year will be the biggest year of growth yet for New York’s charter schools, with 29 due to open in New York City alone. But Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep, a successful charter middle school in Harlem, is already starting to turn his focus to another state. The political environment in New York, he fears, is shifting.

This month, a bill to double the number of charter schools ended in deadlock in Albany. Political opposition is nothing new for such schools, but this defeat was particularly jarring, coming even as other states have loosened restrictions on charter schools to improve their chances for a share of $4 billion in federal grant funds in the competition known as the Race to the Top. As the Race to the Top deadline came and went, New York did not act.

Mr. Andrew, 31, wants to open five charter schools in the city; his second will open next year. But the current state law limits the number of charter schools to 200, and 182 are already running or have been given permission to open. While Mr. Andrew said he would not abandon his New York schools, he now plans to open three in Rhode Island, which offered him free facilities, and pledged to let him expand without limit as long as his schools show results.

“I was born and raised in New York, so I wanted to commit to New York,” said Mr. Andrew, who graduated from Bronx Science High School before getting degrees from Brown and Harvard.

“What the Legislature hasn’t seemed to understand is that the best charter operators in the country are mobile, and when they do harmful things to charters, the best operators move to more supportive environments,” he said.

Slow to latch onto the nationwide charter school movement, which began in earnest in the 1990s, New York City has in the past few years become a magnet for the schools, which are privately run but publicly funded. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, have welcomed them, offering space in public schools to about two-thirds of the 99 charter schools the city now has. With the new wave of schools in the fall, and the growth of existing charter schools that are adding grades every year, enrollment is projected to swell by about 8,000 next year, to a total of about 38,000. Mr. Bloomberg has said he wants 10 percent of the city’s 1 million schoolchildren in charter schools by the end of his term, compared with about 3 percent now.

In the past, the only way to get pro-charter legislation through the Legislature was under a strong governor early in his term, said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York State Charter School Association. In 1998, Gov. George E. Pataki passed the state’s first charter school law, permitting the creation of 100 schools. After that limit was reached in late 2005, it took 16 months and a new governor, Eliot Spitzer, to authorize more charters. Gov. David A. Paterson has been supportive of charter schools, but he is in an election year, facing challenges from his own party.

There were other problems, including timing. Though the state knew about the Race to the Top as early as last February, pro-charter forces in Albany did not initially push a new bill, thinking that New York was sure to win up to $700 million in the competition, which rewards states that develop the most innovative plans for improving education. “I don’t know if people understood the need for legislative action,” said Malcolm A. Smith, the president of the State Senate, who ultimately backed a last-hour effort by the governor to raise the number of charter schools to 460.

James Merriman, of the city’s Charter School Center, said it was not until a contentious video conference with state education officials and legislators in November that the mood shifted, when the new education commissioner, David M. Steiner, said the state would need to raise the limit on charter schools.

Opposition to charters in the Assembly, meanwhile, was high, in part because of what Speaker Sheldon Silver called the city’s aggressive push to place charter schools in traditional public school buildings, creating anger in communities that ricocheted back to legislators. Mr. Silver supported raising the cap to 400, but with conditions that Mr. Bloomberg and many senators opposed. Legislators could not agree on a consensus bill in time for the Jan. 19 Race to the Top deadline.

“People who were supporters of charters previously have become anticharter as a result of their experiences,” Mr. Silver said. As a result, he said, legislators put in language that would eliminate the city’s ability to approve charters and would require community approval before a charter school could be moved into an existing school building.

“From our perspective, it was the only way to get legislation,” he said.

Teachers’ unions have not been friendly to charters, because they tend not to be unionized and take money that would have otherwise been spent on traditional public schools with unionized teachers. Richard C. Iannuzzi, the head of the powerful state’s teachers’ union, was able to persuade the Assembly to add requirements to its bill, calling for charters to be subject to state audits and mandating that they make efforts to attract high-needs students.

“If the only reason we don’t get Race to the Top dollars turns out to be because of unbridled growth of charters regardless of their quality, then I will be disappointed in the way the Department of Education viewed the applications,” he said.

Michael Thomas Duffy, the city’s executive director for charter schools, said he continues to court the nation’s best charter organizations. But, he said, “the air of uncertainty makes our case that much harder to make.”

Mr. Andrew’s situation shows why. His school, which has earned top marks from the city, spends about $1 million, or one-seventh of its budget, on private facilities, which it uses because of disputes over public space. In Rhode Island, the school he opened this year has free space, lower pay scales, and students every bit as needy.

“The equation we have to calculate is what presents the highest likelihood of success for our students,” he said.

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