Alive and Growing Smartly

By Michael Pih

Each morning, my inbox contains a digest of all the latest in education news here in the city, which gives me some sense of what the day has in store. It was with some shock, then, that I recently read an opinion piece in which the author claimed the death of the New York charter movement. As proof, we’re told that in 2015, just six new charters were approved (so far) by the two state authorizers—the State Education Department (SED) and SUNY—while the New York City Department of Education seeks to close seven charters. Anyone with a basic understanding of arithmetic can tell you that is a net of negative one.

I contend that when one takes a step back to view the bigger picture of the sector, we see a far different environment, one in which the charter sector is flourishing and growing.

Since 2010, when the State Legislature increased the statewide cap on charters, the number of charters being approved has fluctuated. The chart below shows the number of charter applications submitted and approved from 2010 through 2015 by SED and SUNY. The data show the ebbs and flows in charter authorizing: in 2012, for example, 28 charters were approved, roughly a 30% approval rate, and in the following year, 17 charters were approved (a 20% approval rate). As referenced above, there have been just six approvals so far during the 2015 round, though there are still 17 applications pending review by SUNY with final approvals forthcoming.

*Decisions from SUNY’s final 2015 application round are pending.

What’s been unstated in this nascent conversation is that through June 2015, SUNY had essentially reached its authorizer cap—meaning, SUNY effectively had no new charters to issue. It wouldn’t be until the 2015 amendments to the Charter Schools Act during the last state legislative session that SUNY had any new charters to authorize. And, following passage of the new legislation, SUNY immediately squeezed in a second application round to make up ground (which is why we are still awaiting decisions from the December 2015 RFP).

The reality is that there are 31 schools currently in the pipeline (i.e., approved) throughout the state, 15 of which are slated to open in NYC in fall 2016. Among these are five Success Academy schools, consistently the highest achieving schools, charter or district, as well as several independent charters either replicating proven high quality school models—e.g. Bronx Charter School for Excellence 2, one of the highest performing independents—or developing innovative new models—the New York City Charter School of the Arts, with its music-infused education program. Rather than spell the death knell of the movement, these charter openings portend a trend toward high quality growth.

As the sector continues to mature, and more oversight responsibilities are placed on our charter authorizers, we must takes steps to ensure that each authorizer has the resources and capacity to fulfill its critical mission. High quality charter authorizing is an essential component to effective growth of the sector. In fact, we at the Charter Center are committed to supporting “smart growth” rather than growth for growth’s sake.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to label the movement dead. It isn’t. Focusing more broadly on historical trends in authorizing, the charter openings in the pipeline and the steady stream of applicants, reveals a healthy and thriving charter sector. Rather than lament what may be a lull, we should focus our energies on finding solutions to funding disparities between traditional district and charter schools, and facilities constraints that often dissuade quality applicants from applying or replicating in the first place.