[This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News on May 3, 2019.]
New York City charter schools are now in the middle of their annual sympathy tour of Albany, complaining that the current cap on the number of charters is leaving thousands of students behind. What they won’t admit is that — under the current cap — they are even now able to add hundreds of new schools and as many as 50,000 more students, sucking another $1 billion in funding every year from our public schools.
New York State legislators need to halt these planned expansions that would only solidify charters as a parallel — but unregulated and discriminatory — school system, one that is draining resources from many of New York’s neediest kids.
Here’s how it works: each charter license permits a school to eventually serve students from kindergarten through 12th grade. So, over time, one charter is the equivalent of three individual charter schools — an elementary, a middle and a high school.
New York City currently has 235 operating charters. A review of their grade configurations, however, shows this actually represents 377 charter elementary, middle and high schools and about 123,000 students, more than the entire public school populations of Detroit and Atlanta combined.
These charter operations already divert an estimated $2.1 billion a year in city Department of Education funds, despite the fact charters generally serve smaller percentages of the most challenging students. Many charters also have far higher suspension and student attrition rates than regular public schools.
Despite their complaints, the major charter chains have plenty of room to grow. Success Academy alone is authorized under current charter rules to add nearly 10,000 seats, while Achievement First and KIPP can add 3,000 seats each.
Districts that would be particularly threatened by charter expansions include District 5 in Harlem, where nearly half the existing schools are already charters; District 7 in the South Bronx; and District 16 in Brooklyn.
Rolling back charter expansion plans is critical, but not enough. We are also supporting legislation that would apply to charters the kinds of public oversight and accountability that are now required of public schools — a measure widely opposed by charter school advocates.
The city school system’s website contains detailed financial and demographic information for every school. But trained investigators can search charter websites, state Department of Investigation data and even public tax filings and still find little or no real information about how charters operate.
Charters should be forced to demonstrate that tax dollars are spent in the classroom rather than on inflated salaries of charter executives and overpriced services of charter management companies. The transparency legislation would make wealthy charters — those with $1 million or more in assets — ineligible to receive co-located space in public building, or to get a public rental subsidy for private classroom space. It would also cap compensation packages for the majority of charter executives at $199,000 a year.
Real transparency would also reveal why charters had only 9% of the school population but 46% of the suspensions; 10% percent of the homeless students, less than the public school average of 15%; and only 7% of the English language learners population, less than half the public school average.
Charter schools were originally designed to be laboratories of innovation rather than a parallel and unaccountable competitor for resources with the public system. The 50,000 charter seats already authorized but not built or filled would increase the actual number of charter elementary, middle and high schools to more than 500, equal to nearly one-third the total of city public schools and more than twice the total number of public schools in Philadelphia.
It is time for state government to freeze their growth, and to put in place measures to ensure that charters take, keep and educate all kinds of students, while they open up their operations to real public scrutiny.