charter wars

As war over charter schools rages on, what power does the city actually have?

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Sharita Moore-Willis, whose daughter will start first grade at Girls Prep Lower East Side this fall, speaks at a rally on the City Hall steps demanding an apology from Mayor Bill DeBlasio for his earlier comments on charter school test scores.

New York City’s charter school battle lines are as clear as ever. Last week, the mayor fired the latest shot by dismissing some charter schools’ test score gains as a product of test prep rather than “actually teaching kids.”

Charter school advocates, who called his comments “insulting” and “mean-spirited,” took to the op-ed page and are planning another massive rally this September to call on the city to “stand with public charter schools”

But while the debate rages on, the city’s power to stop the charter sector from expanding has slowly waned. The Department of Education can no longer authorize new schools, the state doubled the city’s charter school cap, and legislation requires the city to provide rent money for charter schools using private space.

That leaves little practical recourse for de Blasio to hamper charter schools, some argue, regardless of how he feels about them.

“It seems completely like rhetoric to me,” said Dirk Tillotson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great School Choices, which helps launch community-based charter schools. “I don’t think the education department has any credibility, and he particularly doesn’t have any credibility on charters.”

Others say that rhetoric itself has power, and that the mayor can complicate the process for charter schools trying to find public space. Here’s a look at what the city can — and can’t — do when it comes to charter schools.

Can the mayor stop charter schools from expanding? (No, that’s not him.)

The city’s Department of Education used to be able to approve or “authorize” charters, but it lost that power in a series of state legislative changes passed during the Race to the Top era. Now, charter approval and oversight is left to the New York State Board of Regents and SUNY.

Roughly 50 charter schools still remain under the control of the Department of Education, holdovers from when the city used to authorize charters. In February, the city moved to close three low-performing charter schools under its control. Even the New York City Charter School Center did not protest those closures.

“Nobody wants to see a school closed, but it’s important that authorizers maintain high standards and hold charters accountable,” said James Merriman, CEO of the Charter School Center, at the time.

Charter schools currently serve 95,000 students, roughly 8.6 percent of the student population, and a state cap controls their growth. Last year the state doubled limit on the number of new charter schools that can start in New York City from 25 to 50.

Can he deny charter schools space? (Not technically, but advocates argue he can make it difficult.)

School space has been a key flash point between de Blasio and advocates.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz led the charge against de Blasio in 2014 with a crusade to secure charter school space — and it’s a battle she won. The state passed a law requiring the city to provide new charter schools with space inside city buildings or fund private rent for schools.

Despite that law, some charter advocates argue de Blasio could do a better job finding public space for charter schools. Public space is often preferable to private space, they say, since those buildings are already designed to accommodate students.

In June, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools released a report claiming there are 67 schools in the city with more than 500 seats available for students. City officials called that claim “misleading,” since many factors determine whether a given space is appropriate for a school, including projected enrollment and the type of seats available.

Still, leaders of the city’s largest charter school networks said the city could provide more space to schools with fewer strings attached.

“The process was often marred by unnecessary hurdles, difficulties and delays,” wrote a group of charter school leaders in an open letter to de Blasio. “Sadly, in other cases, public charter schools were not provided with public facilities, leaving thousands of families stranded without a high-­quality option or building.”

Can he control charters’ ability to provide pre-K? (Not exactly)

This fall, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz refused to sign the city’s pre-K contract, arguing that being asked to do so is illegal since Success is overseen by SUNY, not the Department of Education.

“One of the primary reasons Success scholars and teachers have been able to achieve so much is their ability to learn and work without the shackles of bureaucracy exemplified by this 241-page contract,” said Success spokesman Stefan Friedman in February.

City officials fired back, insisting that they have a responsibility to ensure pre-K standards remain high in every school, including charter schools. Moskowitz appealed to State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who denied her request. In response, she cancelled her pre-K classes this year.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan appeared to throw his weight behind Moskowitz when he sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, arguing that the state should help ease the regulatory burdens on charter schools. It is still unclear how the law will be interpreted, but Assembly Speaker Heastie sent a dueling letter to the governor, disagreeing with Flanagan’s interpretation.

Does the rhetoric itself have power? (Possibly, but only if people listen)

Even if he has little practical power over charter schools, some say his words themselves are deflating.

“I think it does hurt charter schools when he casts aspersions and basically says their hard work to help [students] meet Common Core standards is really just a glorified parlor trick,” Merriman said.

Some, like Tillotson, are skeptical that the mayor has enough allies to make a dent at the state level. “He can politically lobby, but he’s got no political juice,” Tillotson said.

But others, like Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with some charter schools, say the mayor’s words matter.

“What he does have is the bully pulpit. He’s the mayor, he has significant following in the city,” Bellafiore said. “He has a bullhorn and that has an impact.”

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”