The plot to weaken New York City charters

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If New York politics were sane and rational — if our elected officials were serious about the pursuit of educational excellence and what’s best for children — the city’s charter-school sector would be a point of civic pride. 

Our leaders might point to the thousands of black and Hispanic children charter schools launch into competitive colleges annually from the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“If you want to see what equity looks like,” they might brag with no small amount of big-city swagger, “come to the Big Apple.” 

If we cannot have sane and rational politics, can we at least have a little less hypocrisy?

City ally’s about-face 

State Sen. John Liu (D-Queens) earned praise for fending off ill-conceived attempts to scrap the entrance exam at Gotham’s specialized high schools. Standing up for New York’s Asian community, he defended the high-achieving institutions as a path to success. 

So it’s hard to reconcile Liu’s more recent effort to diminish equity and excellence among New York’s charter schools, which are no less valued and beloved by the city’s black and Hispanic families than Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are among Asian parents.

John Liu
Democrat Senator John Liu from Queens pushed back against scrapping the entrance exam at NYC’s specialized high schools.
HANS PENNINK

Liu last month introduced a bill that would remove the authority of the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY) to grant or renew charter schools, handing over that critical oversight power to the state’s Board of Regents. 

New York’s charter schools are tuition-free public schools but under private management and overseen by a public “authorizer.” For the majority of New York City charters, that’s SUNY, which happens to be among the best and highest performing charter-school authorizers in the nation; its portfolio includes top charters with national reputations, including Achievement First, Icahn, KIPP, Success Academy and Uncommon Schools, all of which are academically strong and oversubscribed with long waiting lists. 

Turning oversight of these schools to the state’s Board of Regents may seem like a minor bit of bureaucratic shuffling, but as a recent Post editorial noted, Liu “know[s] perfectly well that the Regents are a creature of the teachers unions, which despise charters because these alternative public schools expose the failings of the regular public systems that serve the unions so well.” 

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which closely follows charter-school performance nationwide, has estimated that New York City charter-school students gain the equivalent of 23 days of additional learning in reading and an additional 63 days of learning in math over their peers in traditional schools run by the Department of Education. 

“The independent role of SUNY as full-time authorizer and expert is part of the equation,” says Margaret Raymond, the center’s director. 

If the pursuit of excellence means, “Do more of what’s working, less of what’s not working,” SUNY-authorized charter schools are part of the solution. Some 88% of SUNY charters in New York City outperformed traditional public schools in their neighborhoods on the English Language Arts state exam the last time they were administered, in 2019; the results were even better in math, with 91% outperforming city-run schools in the same neighborhoods. 

Don’t mess with success

It makes no sense educationally to change the oversight structure that’s served a generation of families effectively. 

Masks
New York City charter-school students gain the equivalent of 23 days of additional learning in reading and an additional 63 days of learning in math.
Gabriella Bass

It makes even less sense to artificially limit the number of quality charter schools available to New York City families. For the 2019-20 school year, the most recent year for which there is data, more than 80,000 applications were submitted for 33,000 available seats in NYC charter schools. 

Alas, that pent-up demand is going unmet: There are literally no more charters to give out at present. Legislation passed in 2015 put a hard ceiling on the number of charters available in New York City. If Liu were serious about equity and excellence, he might shift his focus to lifting that cap.

John Liu, why defend opportunity for Asian children and deny it for black and Hispanic students? Let’s show a little consistency to lift everyone.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public-school teacher. 

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