Charter Schools and Their Enemies
Why undermine institutions that have benefited thousands of city students?
Among the many educational reforms that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg adopted or expanded, charter schools—public schools that enjoy autonomy from many district restrictions, such as the salary schedule for teachers and the length of the school day—are perhaps the biggest success story. There were 14 charter schools in the city when Bloomberg took office. Today, 159 of them educate more than 48,000 students. Though charters operate in each of the five boroughs, theyre most heavily concentrated in areas with underperforming traditional public schools, such as Harlem and the South Bronx. Despite their rapid growth, the demand for charter school seats continues to exceed the supply. According to the New York City Charter School Center, nearly 53,000 students are currently on waiting lists.
Charter schools vary considerably in quality. Some are fabulous, some are good, a few are no better than the nearby traditional public schools from which they draw students, and a few may be worse. But empirical research leaves no doubt that the average student who attends a Gotham charter is much better off because of it. A study by economist Caroline Hoxby using a gold-standard random-assignment methodology found that students in the citys charter schools made substantially better academic progress than they would have in a traditional public school. Margaret Raymond, the director of Stanford Universitys Center for Research on Education Outcomes, conducted a separate analysis and confirmed Hoxbys study. (Its notable that other research of Raymonds found far more mixed results in other states charters.)
Some critics contend that charter schools harm conventional public schools by robbing them of resources and their best students. But the success of charter students doesnt come at the expense of kids who remain in the traditional schools, as my own research demonstrates. Was there a relationship, I wondered, between the percentage of students that a traditional New York City public school lost to the charter sector one year and that schools academic performance the following year? Using data on individual students over time, I found that the more students a public school lost to charters, the better its remaining students performed—probably because the school now faced competition from charters for enrollment. Though that finding contradicts the narrative, propagated by the teachers unions, that charters threaten traditional public schools, its consistent with a wide body of research evaluating school-choice programs across the nation.
In a perfect world, charter schools wouldnt be a political issue. But their autonomy threatens the teachers unions and others who benefit from the restrictions that govern the traditional public school sector. These interests have lost several battles in their war on charters. In 2010, for instance, Albany lawmakers substantially increased the cap on the number of charter schools that can exist in the state, in part because of vocal support from Mayor Bloomberg.
The changing of the guard in the New York mayors office offers the anti-charter forces a new opportunity, however. Theres little danger that the next mayor could force charters out of Gotham any time soon; the schools have gained powerful political constituencies among parents seeking educational alternatives, and theyre backed by well-financed groups and individuals across the city and the nation. But a new administration hostile to charters could impede their progress and diminish their promise. Alternatively, a supportive mayor could expand the model and help kids across the city.
Perhaps the most important charter-related policy that the new mayor will confront involves physical space. Charter schools across the nation often have trouble finding an adequate location, but the challenge is particularly difficult in cramped New York. With the backing of the Bloomberg administration, most of the citys charters run virtually rent-free in unused space within buildings that also house conventional public schools. For visitors, these colocated environments can be startling: on one floor, overwhelmed teachers in the traditional school might be showing videos to rowdy students, while on another, engaged charter students participate actively in dynamic lessons. Colocations are a fiscal necessity for New Yorks charters, since they get no capital funds from the state. And the arrangement is entirely reasonable; after all, charter schools are still public schools. But parents in the host schools vehemently fight every new colocation, and the teachers unions and various nonprofit groups deploy angry protesters on their behalf.
The extent to which a new administration supports colocations will thus have an enormous influence on the future success of New Yorks charters. Continued mayoral support would further the growth of charters across the city. As for an unsupportive new mayor, he probably wouldnt evict charters currently occupying public space, though at least one candidate has proposed doing just that. But he could certainly slow the expansion of colocation agreements or even put a stop to new ones. He wouldnt need to do so directly but could hide behind increasing community input into the location process, thereby compounding the time and hassle required to place potentially great schools into unused city property. Such a policy would prevent many new charters from starting up.
Also, when a new mayor arrives in City Hall, calls from teachers unions and their supporters to regulate charter schools more tightly will grow louder. Freedom from the many burdensome regulations that impede traditional public schools is charter schools biggest asset, of course, so the new administration should continue Bloombergs fight to lighten the charters regulatory load. That fight will take place primarily in Albany, where many of the laws governing charters are made.
For example, the new mayor should persuade state legislators to reduce restrictions on who can teach in charters. Charters already have more autonomy here than traditional public schools do: since they arent restricted by the citys collective bargaining agreement, they can remove ineffective teachers without the extensive due-process requirements that the traditional schools administrators face. But by law, charters still cant employ many uncertified teachers, which often inhibits them from hiring qualified candidates. At first glance, that restriction might seem sensible. But empirical research provides no meaningful evidence that certified teachers are more effective in the classroom than uncertified ones. So the law stops schools from hiring promising candidates who havent jumped through the mandated hoops. A former engineer may or may not turn out to be an effective high school math teacher—but its preposterous that she wouldnt be qualified to teach in a charter school without first obtaining an otherwise useless education certificate. The new mayor should push Albany to allow charter schools to staff their schools with as many uncertified teachers as they please.
New York Citys charter schools provide a valuable lifeline to many students who otherwise would find themselves stuck in terrible public schools. The rapid expansion of charters over the last decade is one of Bloombergs most important legacies; with luck, the citys next mayor will understand that.
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