Amid debate to raise cap, a charter school authorizer rejects all applicants

Cynthia McCallister, an education professor whose teaching models have become a fixture in some district schools, was looking for new ways to put her ideas to work.

So last November, she decided to apply to open Education for Tomorrow Bronx Charter High School, a process she described as taking 50 hours a week for the next several weeks to complete.

“You basically open up your vein and spill out all this blood, sweat, and tears,” McCallister said.

The 60-page plan she produced wasn’t enough for the State Education Department, which denied McCallister’s application, citing shortcomings of the school’s staffing plan, assessment system, and budget.

McCallister wasn’t the only applicant disappointed. In fact, the department told all 15 groups that submitted plans to open new charter schools that they did not meet the state’s standards, marking the first time since at least 2010 that an open application period will end without an approval for a New York City applicant.

State education officials said the decisions were a reflection of the department’s high standards. But the applicants also found themselves caught up in a moment when the implications of granting charters are greater than ever, as advocates push legislators to raise the state’s charter cap by June and opposing lawmakers point at the remaining charters as evidence that the cap is fine where it is.

The timing has raised eyebrows among the prospective charter school leaders, many of whom said the feedback they received in their denial letters didn’t add up.

“I’m not sure really what’s going on,” McCallister said.

Senate Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have both proposed lifting the cap by as many as 100 schools statewide. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, meanwhile, has called attention to the 157 charters the state still has left to distribute — including 25 for New York City.

“There’s still a few charters to go under the cap,” Heastie said Tuesday. “We don’t necessarily see a need to take any action.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who has been a booster of charter schools during her six-year tenure as Regents head, made a version of the same argument in an interview this week.

“My feeling is, what difference does it make if you raise the charter cap if, the truth is, you make it harder to get through the process?” Tisch said. “I believe in opening good schools.”

Tisch said the Regents have grown increasingly concerned about the number of struggling charter schools that they have renewed this year. The Regents also came under heavy scrutiny last year after they were forced to rescind a new charter that the department had granted to a Rochester school whose founding member lied about his credentials.

Charter authorizers must make the process “very stringent,” Tisch said. “Don’t just grant a charter because someone has a nice idea. Grant a charter because they have proven to you beyond any question that they can manage a very complicated situation and that they’re going to bring all their capacity-building resources to bear.”

Of the 15 groups angling to open charters this year, 12 were for New York City: three in Brooklyn, three in the Bronx, three in Manhattan, two in Queens, and one in Staten Island.

Three of the applicants already operated schools and wanted to replicate their models. One of them, Growing Up Green Charter School II, even received an endorsement from Assembly education committee chair Catherine Nolan, whose staunch ally, the teachers union, opposes the growth of charter schools.

Bill Clarke, the director of the state’s charter-school office, said he and his staff decided not to advance any plans based on its standard criteria. That process has gotten stricter in recent years: 15 percent of applicants that submitted a letter of intent received charters in 2012, whereas just 8 percent have in the subsequent two years.

“It’s not a numbers game,” Clarke said. “It’s a quality game.”

With the exception of a special application round set up specifically for Buffalo, the department has never before accepted applications and then not invited any groups to the next round, which involves interviews with the proposed school’s leaders and department staff.

The 15 rejected applicants will be allowed to reapply when a second round of the application process starts on June 23, less than a week after the legislative session ends.

For now, other issues facing the legislature in its final 12 working days have taken up more of the spotlight than the charter-school cap. Cuomo has spent the past week campaigning for a tax credit bill that would boost enrollment in private schools, leaving charter advocates to try to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to support lifting the cap.