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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Happy Birthday, Charter Schools
A ten-year-old law, mostly successful in New York
18 December 2008

Today marks the tenth anniversary of New York’s Charter Schools Act, which authorized the creation of 100 charter schools in the state. Over the past decade, charter schools—public schools that may operate independently of local school districts—have gone from a quaint think-tank idea to a mass movement with broad parental support and bipartisan backing.

Back in 1998, the charter school law was primarily viewed as the hobbyhorse of Republican governor George Pataki, with Democratic support limited to the Reverend Floyd Flake, a former congressman, and to a few Democratic assemblymen. The New York City Schools Chancellor openly opposed the law, as did the New York State School Boards Association and two teachers’ unions, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and its most important local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Today, the law is supported by Democratic governor David Paterson, Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith, much of the membership of the Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and New York City’s mayor and schools chancellor. NYSUT remains opposed, but the UFT has staked out a more nuanced position, going so far as to open two charter schools itself. A new generation of younger Democrats, members of the group Democrats for Education Reform, are providing financial and political backing to charters in New York. And the schools are popular with parents, too: according to the New York Charter Schools Association, more than 30,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charters.

Though charter schools still face significant resistance, few political observers would have predicted such a sweeping change in the political landscape. Clearly, the perspective of ten years offers much to be happy about and much progress to build on. But failures and missteps along the way also suggest a need for state chartering entities and charter advocates to pause for a moment of reflection. How did we get here, and where are we headed?

New York’s law authorized two chartering entities, the State University of New York’s board of trustees and the New York State Board of Regents, each entitled to hand out half of the 100 charters. All were issued between January 1999 and December 2006. In April 2007, then-governor Eliot Spitzer and the New York State Legislature authorized 100 additional charters, 37 of which have been issued so far. The state’s largest market for charter schools is, unsurprisingly, New York City, where about two-thirds of the schools have been located. Charters have also opened on Long Island and in Albany, Buffalo, Lackawanna, Niagara, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse, Tonawanda, Troy, and Yonkers.

Most charter schools are nonunion and thus avoid the restrictions of teacher-union contracts. The UFT’s 165-page contract with the New York public school system, by contrast, stipulates pay levels based on seniority, college credits, and credentials earned; dictates when employees may and may not be transferred; mandates a highly formal process for disciplining or removing teachers; narrowly defines work that each employee is allowed to perform; requires extra pay for any additional work; prohibits any direct negotiations with teachers at the individual or school level; and sets forth strict tenure protections.

In exchange for freedom from red tape and legal restrictions, charter schools are required to enter into performance contracts of up to five years with the state and to agree to specific benchmarks on test scores, attendance rates, and other criteria. So far, the charters are living up to their promise. An analysis of 2008 state test data by the New York Charter Schools Association reveals that more than two-thirds of New York’s charter schools outscored their local districts. In District 5 in Harlem, Governor Paterson’s backyard, every charter school outscored the district average in English and math, in some cases by 40 or 50 percentage points.

Failures have been relatively few. Eight charter schools have closed. All suffered from founders who failed to allot enough time for planning before the school opened, leaders who simply weren’t up to the job, or incompetent or fractured boards of directors. Their other problems—such as low test scores, weak school culture, failure to keep track of the myriad regulatory requirements that apply to charter schools, and the challenge of finding, renovating, and financing school facilities—followed from one or more of those larger failures.

Over the past decade, several important trends have shaped the development of New York State’s charter schools. First, for-profit management companies—once viewed as a major growth driver for charter schools—are in sharp decline. At one point or another, 25 charter schools in New York State have contracted with for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs), but only 12 schools still do. Many EMO-affiliated schools have grown too large seeking more revenue—often enrolling 500 students, and sometimes more than 1,000—and some EMOs have landed contracts to manage multiple schools more quickly than they are able.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit charter-management sector is seeing considerable growth. To date, three dozen charter schools have been authorized that are associated with nonprofit charter groups. These nonprofits offer many of the services that EMOs do, but without the pressure of having to hit profit targets, they’ve been able to grow more slowly and with less risk. Charter schools backed by nonprofits constitute the most consistently high-performing charter school sector in New York. Schools associated with the nonprofits Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and KIPP routinely trounce their local districts on state math and English exams and typically are among the highest-performing schools in their districts. In a related development, an increasing number of charters are being assisted by nonprofit foundations; to date, no foundation-assisted charter school has had to close its doors.

A small group of charters has received important support from one or more “angel” donors. “Starting a charter school, like any start-up business, is high-risk,” says Bryan Lawrence, cofounder of the highly successful Girls Prep Charter School in the lower East Side. “The odds for success, however, go up if talented educators are paired with financial backers who can provide early funding and business acumen.”

Finally, the relative market share of “mom and pop” charters has declined, both because the chartering entities have raised standards and because stand-alone schools find a host of challenges hard to handle: start-up expenses, facility construction and finance, personnel recruitment in an increasingly competitive charter marketplace, and political opposition. The mom and pop schools have been the source of much innovation, but also great risk and the occasional flameout: it’s extremely difficult to open a new school and succeed. Yet as Bill Phillips, the president of the New York Charter Schools Association, points out, “The importance of this sector to constantly reseed the charter school market cannot be underestimated. Remember, great schools like KIPP and Amistad Academy started as stand-alone schools.”

The greatest promise of charters isn’t just the creation of isolated successful schools, though—it’s prompting serious change in the rest of the public school system. So far, relatively small numbers of high-quality charter schools haven’t been able to accomplish that anywhere in the nation; elephantine districts view charters as annoying flies to swat away. Similarly, the creation of a large number of charter schools that aren’t appreciably better than their local districts, as in Dayton, poses no real threat to the established order. The key, unaccomplished to date, is to combine high quality with high market share.

Though New York City has more charter schools than any other city in the state—78 schools, serving about 24,000 students—those schools are dwarfed by the 1.2 million–student New York City school district. Charters’ market share in Albany and Buffalo is much higher. In Buffalo, about 16 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools; in Albany, almost 25 percent are, with that number expected to top 30 percent in just two years, making it one of the highest-density charter markets in the nation. “What’s unknown is the ‘tipping point’ at which even the most moribund district will be forced to improve,” says Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York Charter Schools Association.

Checker Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has cited Albany as one of the few cities in the nation that has birthed a sizable charter-school sector “without . . . many quality woes.” The notable “quality woe” in Albany has been the New Covenant Charter School, managed in turn by three for-profit firms: Advantage Schools (now defunct), Edison Schools (now with just one charter school), and more recently Victory Schools. New Covenant became a poster child for how charter schools can go wrong by opening too quickly, growing too fast, and failing to establish a positive school culture in its maiden years. The State University never should have granted it a five-year renewal charter in 2004. Though its test scores have risen under the management of Victory Schools, it’s unclear whether New Covenant will secure a second renewal in 2009.

The Brighter Choice Foundation, which I chair, learned from the lessons of New Covenant when it helped found Albany’s other charter schools. Brighter Choice only backed small schools that were willing to set aside a year or more for planning time and to open with just a grade or two, adding one grade per year. None of these schools contracts with a management firm, either. The approach has worked, as the 2008 state exams showed. In every grade from 3 through 7 in the math exams, and in grades 4 and 7 in the English exam, Albany’s top-performing school was a charter. And these are schools that serve a largely poor, minority student population.

These encouraging developments have drawn the attention of political leaders long concerned with the racial achievement gap in the state’s urban schools. “The successful test scores of students attending charter schools in Albany demonstrate that students in challenged, urban areas should not be written off because of the neighborhood in which they live,” said Malcolm Smith after the latest round of state test results. “Legislators are watching what’s going on in Albany very closely,” added assemblyman Darryl Towns, the chairman of the Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “The success they are having with minority students is making a lot of folks take notice.”

Albany’s success story has not been without detractors. The superintendent of the City School District of Albany, Eva Joseph, has decried the financial impact of charter schools on her district, even though per-pupil spending there has risen from $12,600 in school year 2002–03 to a staggering $22,300 in the current school year. During the same period, fewer than two dozen staff members have been pruned from the district’s payroll of more than 900 teachers and associated staff, despite the loss of almost 20 percent of its students to charters so far. NYSUT, which represents teachers at the troubled New Covenant Charter School but not at any of Albany’s more successful charters, has attempted repeatedly to get the Legislature to cap charter-school market share in Albany at 5 percent, a level reached nine years ago.

But it is precisely the charters’ growing market share that is driving district reform. Just as Albany’s charter market share hit significant levels, Albany public schools implemented a flurry of reforms, including uniforms in one school, single-sex classes in another, and a longer school day across the district. Each of these reforms mimics the features of local charters.

Charters in New York City, Albany, and elsewhere provide important lessons as the state’s charter schools enter their second decade. Some of these lessons are for the chartering entities. The number of charter failures over the past decade could have been reduced if the chartering entities had imposed higher standards up front. Charter schools should also be strongly encouraged to take a year to plan before they open. And chartering entities should weed out the handful of low-performing charter schools that remain open.

Other lessons pertain to school design. Smaller is invariably better than larger: a smaller school can give students more personalized attention, make sure needy children don’t fall between the cracks, and implement academic or behavioral reforms more nimbly than larger schools can. Schools that top out at 400 students almost uniformly do better than bigger ones. Similarly, as they continue to expand, nonprofit charter networks should remember not to spread themselves too thin. And the most successful schools typically start with just one or two grades and grow gradually.

Highly successful charter schools also tend to have more time for learning, to give their leaders autonomy, to employ traditional math and English curricula, to have high behavioral expectations of their students, to use data to inform instruction, and to require school uniforms. But even a well-designed school can be poorly run. Consider the school formerly known as KIPP Sankofa in Buffalo, which benefited from the KIPP design but suffered from poor execution from a young principal whose organizational difficulties ultimately overwhelmed the school.

Finally, schools with major support mechanisms—help with facilities, back-office operations, recruitment, and compliance—do better. The past decade makes clear that schools that have access to support in key areas stand a much better chance of success. This support can take the form of a nonprofit charter network, foundation backing, support from “angel” investors, or access to a variety of service providers.

After ten years, in short, we know more clearly what works and what doesn’t. Charter schools and the state’s chartering entities increasingly can put this knowledge to work for the children of New York State.

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation.

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