Claiming huge waitlists, charter organizations are urging an increase in the number of charter schools. But according to a pro-charter organization, city charter schools currently have 2,500 empty seats, and a review of SUNY authorizing documents shows that current schools are already authorized to enroll another 27,000 students in the coming years.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew, joined by elected officials and city parents, urged charters to immediately begin to "backfill" their empty seats, and said there should be no discussion of lifting the charter cap until charter schools agree to submit their waiting lists to outside auditors, including the city and state comptrollers.
Mr. Mulgrew said, "Charter cheerleaders can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim a space squeeze when they now have thousands of empty seats, and can’t demand an increase when they are already authorized for tens of thousands more students."
"At the same time the Legislature should not be making decisions about charter school expansion until there are reliable outside audits of charter waiting lists, including eliminating duplicate applications and investigating the millions of dollars charters have spent on marketing to artificially hype demand," Mr. Mulgrew added.
A borough-by-borough analysis of current charters shows that current charters in Brooklyn are authorized by the State University of New York to fill 15,494 new seats by 2020, while current Manhattan charters are authorized to add 4,097 seats, current Queens charters 3,924 seats, current Bronx charters 3,797 seats and Staten island charters 74 seats for a total of 27,386 seats.
There are 197 charter schools in New York City. Under current law that number can expand by another 25 charters to 222.
Many charters refuse to “backfill”
In February 2015 the pro-charter organization Democracy Builders released a report noting that "between 2006 and 2014…New York City charter schools lost on average 6–11 percent of students each year across grades, creating thousands of seats for new students. In 2014, for instance, at least 2,500 seats were freed up in third through eighth grade alone. Instead of filling these seats, most charter schools let them remain empty."
Considering that the average elementary school has 600-650 students, the number of empty seats estimated in the study would be the equivalent of four complete — but vacant — schools.
According to the report, which urged all charters to fill their empty seats, "Without backfilling, a school can maintain the illusion of success; by maintaining or increasing the absolute number of proficient students while decreasing the number of total students, the percentage of proficient students — who have already had the benefit of charter schooling — is likely to increase."
Questions on charter waitlists
A 2014 study by the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colorado warned that "reporters and others should be skeptical about reports that purport to show that large numbers of students are on charter school ‘waitlists.’"
Citing issues like multiple applications by the same families and sloppy record-keeping by schools, the study said, "We simply do not have trustworthy, reliable waitlist data. Until we do, policymakers would be wise to...wait for verifiable data."
Charters fight audits
New York City charters have stoutly resisted outside audits of their operations, including their waitlists.
In July 2013, Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success schools sued New York State Controller Thomas DiNapoli over his proposed audit of her schools, charging that he had no authority to do so and that such an audit would require the schools "to expend substantial resources to comply with its numerous and broad requests." In March 2015 a Manhattan State Supreme Court judge agreed with Moskowitz’s interpretation of the law.
In October 2014 City Comptroller Scott Stringer said he would audit charter schools, including the city’s largest charter school network. James Merriman, the head of the city charter school organization, disputed Stringer’s authority to do so, saying that Stringer "does not have auditing power over charter school operations."
Critics charge that charter waiting lists have been driven in part by marketing campaigns, while public schools have to rely on word of mouth. In 2010 Eva Moskowitz admitted to spending $325,000 in one year on marketing for Harlem Success Academy. In 2011 the Success network spent nearly $1 million on student recruitment, while in 2013 Girls Prep offered current students a $200 bonus for recruiting new families.