[This op-ed originally appeared in City & State on March 13, 2017.]
School "reformers" — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos among them — constantly harp about offering parents more choices, particularly charter schools.
But when you look at who enrolls and stays in charter schools in New York City, the neediest children and families seem to have the fewest choices.
How else to explain the fact that, as a group, charters end up with students who are more likely to speak English and who are less in need of concentrated special education services than the students in public schools in their neighborhoods?
Charters are also far less likely to be serving the most vulnerable students in our system: the more than 100,000 kids who have been homeless in the past four years and living in temporary housing, meaning they have spent nights in a shelter or doubled up on a relative’s sofa or slept in the backseat of the family car.
In Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, for example, three neighborhood public schools and two Success Academy charters operate within five blocks of each other yet serve dramatically different student populations.
In the three neighborhood public schools, 22%, 30% and 44% of the children are living in temporary housing, according to the city’s Department of Education statistics.At the two Success Academy charter schools, however, between 12% and 13% of children are in this situation.
Success Academy is not unique.
- An Achievement First K-8 charter in East New York has only 5% of its children living in temporary housing. The neighborhood elementary school that shares space in the same building has a homeless population reaching 30%, and the two neighborhood public schools a couple blocks away have 19% and 25% of their students living in temporary housing, according to city education numbers.
- A KIPP middle school charter in Harlem has 12% of its students living in temporary housing while the public middle school located in the same building has 23% and the three neighborhood public schools located within a half mile have homeless populations ranging from 14% to 34%, according to city education numbers.
- Six percent of the students at an Icahn elementary charter in the Soundview section of the Bronx live in temporary housing, compared with 14% in the public school that shares the same building. The two neighborhood public schools located four blocks away have homeless populations ranging from 25% to 28%.
It's time to create a set of real, enforceable standards that will ensure that charters play the role they were designed to play in educating New York City's children. The state Legislature this year should:
- Demand real accountability for any charter that fails to accept and keep all children, including those in temporary housing and children with the most severe learning challenges. Charters that fail to enroll comparable numbers of high-need students as their neighborhood public schools should not be allowed to expand existing charters or to open new schools and could forfeit existing charters.
- Establish a means test to make sure that only charters that show financial need are eligible for free public space. Operations with the financial ability to pay for space out of their donors’ pockets should do so rather than siphon taxpayer dollars from neighborhood public schools, which are typically unable to match charters in fundraising clout.
- Provide true transparency by requiring charters and their management organizations to open their books to federal, state and city auditors. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know where charter funds come from and whether these funds are being spent to benefit students or charter management. A recent purchase by Success Academy of a $68 million commercial condominium in Manhattan highlights the need for the public to understand how charters raise and spend their money.
Charter schools were designed to be incubators for innovation that could then be spread across school districts. But we see what happens when charters are allowed to grow unchecked, unresponsive to public oversight. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan is a warning for the rest of the country as she tries to expand her agenda to privatize education: unregulated charters are always the first step.
New York cannot afford for its charters to remain a parallel system that takes public tax dollars yet remains resistant to public disclosure or accountability that would force them to serve all kids.
It's time our lawmakers mandate that they do so.