Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why NY Charter Schools are Proliferating

The Chalkboard reported below that with the approval of 11 new charter schools this week by the Regents and SUNY, only 37 remain available under the statutory cap of 200. This cap was doubled from its original 100 in April 2007.

In the current 2009-10 school year, there are 140 charter schools in operation educating 44,000 students, a number exceeding the second largest school district in the state. Next year, in 2010-11 there will be another 18 schools.

It took seven years for the first 100 charter schools to get approved and another year to lift the cap. New York is now on pace to reach its second 100 charters in less than half that time. There are several reasons for this stepped up pace, foremost among them is their academic success. For several years running, charter schools have outperformed their respective school districts and community school districts in the overall percentage of students meeting or exceeding state math and reading standards for elementary and middle school. These positive academic results in charter schools are foundational to the factors outlined below that are contributing to their accelerating number in New York State.

-- Success breeds more success. As charter schools prove themselves by improving student achievement, demand increases from parents and communities. In addition, best practices are shared among other charter founders to create schools, including from educational entrepreneurs from other states who were drawn to New York to create successful networks of charter schools. Operators from high performing charter school models have come to this state from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan and California, to name a few; and many founders from New York established charter schools using proven school designs from other states.

-- Success brings greater acceptance. Charter schools were not always welcome in New York, to say the least. Then-Gov. George Pataki tried for nearly two years to get a charter law on the books -- one that would work effectively. By the end of 1998, he succeeded by agreeing to a legislative pay raise, which is what it took in those days. By 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer doubled the cap, but no longer needed a legislative pay raise to do it. He was convinced the academic achievement results from charter schools warranted more of them. Also, more legislators willingly supported him, though significant opposition remained. Even NYSUT's largest local, the NYC United Federation of Teachers, softened their early opposition and went beyond unionizing some charters to operating its own in Brooklyn.

-- Success brings more political support and leadership. In 1998, very few state legislators supported charter schools openly. This number has grown but remains tepid, particularly in the state Assembly, as legislators tip-toe around the omnipresent NYSUT, which remains against charters even though they represent faculty in about 20 schools. The key political support for charters has always begun with executive leadership, starting with Gov. Pataki, then Gov. Spitzer, and now Gov. David Paterson who personifies this positive evolution. Gov. Paterson acknowledged last June, for example, that he was not a charter supporter initially, and voted against the 1998 law when he was a state senator. He changed his view of charter schools after seeing their success and their importance to many communities.

Executive leadership includes local leaders, particularly NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, who has not only approved nearly 50 charter schools, but made district space available to dozens throughout the city. Also, key state senate leaders have supported charters, including Senate President, Malcolm Smith, who co-founded two schools in Queens; and former Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno. Both senators were instrumental in working with Gov. Spitzer to double the cap in 2007.

Leadership at SUNY and the Board of Regents cannot be overlooked regarding the growth in charter schools. On the SUNY side, Edward Cox and Randy Daniels co-chaired the SUNY Trustees committee on charter schools from the beginning, until Daniels stepped down two years ago (Trustee Cox remains chairman of that committee.) On the Regents side, former Chancellor Robert Bennett and current Chancellor Merryl Tisch, have been key supporters. These board members of both statewide charter authorizers have served to educate and reassure their colleagues to approve schools, as many of whom were unfamiliar or less enthusiastic about charters.

Caution is in Order
There are many encouraging developments for charter schools, with the 11 new approvals being the most recent example. Caution is nevertheless warranted. Charter schools must continue doing well by their students academically, and must operate in a fiscally sound, legally compliant manner while being careful not to abuse the freedoms they have under the Charter Schools Act. Charter schools also remain politically vulnerable, especially in a struggling state fiscal environment, as we found this year when the funding formula was frozen.

Charter schools also must look to the future, recognizing that supportive leaders and elected officials come and go. That means continually cultivating elected officials and policymakers at all levels to make positive changes to help charters, including allowing for more such opportunities for children. You can count on charter opponents to do the opposite.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.