The Success Academy Charter Schools network operates 41 schools and enrolls 14,000 students in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. It has opened new schools in all but two years since its inception in 2006. Founder Eva Moskowitz continually asks for more public school classroom space, including a recent plea from the steps of City Hall in June.
Yet a review of public records by the UFT indicates many Success Academy seats remain empty every year. Even as those seats go unfilled now, the hedge fund-backed Families for Excellent Schools, working with Moskowitz, organized a rally in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sept. 29 to call on the mayor to double the city’s charter sector to 200,000 seats. Charter schools accept students at limited “entry points,” and lotteries, which by law are held once a year, pull students for these grades only.
Backfill is the practice of keeping every seat in every grade occupied as long as demand exceeds supply, and most public schools are required to do that. Moskowitz says Success stops accepting new students after 4th grade, but the data suggests that the policy kicks in at least a year earlier. According to an analysis by Democracy Builders, a pro-charter advocacy group, between 2006 and 2014, New York City charter schools lost on average 6 to 11 percent of students each year across grades, creating thousands of seats for new students. In 2014 alone, at least 2,500 seats were freed up in 3rd through 8th grade, according to the group. Instead of filling these seats, many charter schools let them remain empty. According to the UFT review, about 800 Success Academy seats in 3rd through 8th grade were vacated — and remain empty — since 2009.
Democracy Builders, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2015, said charters can “maintain the illusion of success; by maintaining or increasing the absolute number of proficient students while decreasing the number of total students, the number of proficient students … is likely to increase.” Likewise, a report by the city’s Independent Budget Office in 2014 showed that “leavers from charter schools have lower test scores than stayers.” Success Academy had 1,079 3rd-graders in 2015, according to city Department of Education records, but only 948 4th-graders this year, a drop of 12 percent in just one year. The UFT review found that a Success Academy 3rd-grade cohort that started with 753 students in 2013 lost almost 200 students or 24 percent of its class by 2016 [see chart at left]. Similarly, a 3rd-grade cohort that started with 852 students in 2014 dropped to 669 students in 2016, a 21 percent decrease. And another Success cohort went from 323 3rdgraders in 2011 to 232 8th-graders in 2016, a 28 percent drop.
The numbers suggest that by not filling the seats vacated by struggling students and letting the cohorts get smaller, those same cohorts test smarter — and Success Academy advocates point to the charter’s test score gains as a reason to give it more space. In last year’s “No Seat Left Behind” report, Democracy Builders said the charter industry should stop manipulating the system this way. When its high test scores are lauded without “discussing backfill practice or growth metrics, charter schools are further disincentivized from backfilling seats,” the report said, and “neither charter school operators nor policymakers should ignore the systemic academic, financial and social effects of limited backfill policies on our communities.”