In the turmoil of the last two years, teachers’ unions and their allies have followed the maxim of progressive city engineering: never let a crisis go to waste. Taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on education, they’ve sidelined objective standards to implement new admissions criteria, classes, and curricula. It’s almost as if, at long last, they’ve ditched education as the raison d’être of schools, deeming themselves free to pursue radical educator Paulo Freire’s vision of schools as instruments for transformative change to serve the “oppressed.”

Meantime, charter schools, in contrast to their public-sector counterparts, continue to hold classes, maintain high expectations, and produce capable graduates. Given these conditions, it’s no wonder New York City public school enrollment has fallen 9 percent over the past two years, while charter school enrollment has risen by the same measure. Primarily serving black and Hispanic families, these schools increasingly attract Asian-American families, too, who feel ill-served by recent educational reforms.

There’s only one problem. Even as demand for charters surges in Gotham, the state stands in the way. Governor Kathy Hochul and the state legislature continue to enforce a charter school cap, preventing new schools from being started. The powerful statewide teachers’ union has made its animosity against charter schools clear. Many public officials up for election in November, including Hochul herself, are listening. In his book Charter Schools and Their Enemies, Thomas Sowell wrote that the house of public schools is on fire—yet politicians are keeping the exit doors bolted from outside. Inside the burning house are families of all colors and creeds.

That includes Asian families often left out of the conversation. For a time, many Asian parents weren’t aware of the New York State Assessment results that show just how much the high-performing charter schools exceed the results of the zoned schools their children attend. Now, this secret is beginning to circulate, especially by word of mouth.

Asian parents have begun to explore high-performing charter schools within manageable travel distances. In the last two years, Asian enrollment in charters increased from 3,676 to 4,499—a 22.4 percent increase. In Manhattan, Asian enrollment has reached 33 percent at the southernmost Success Academy charter school, in Union Square. The two next-most-southern Success Academy schools, Hudson Yards and Hell’s Kitchen, both on the West Side, show 18 percent and 17 percent Asian enrollment, respectively. Queens, the borough with the most Asians, has no charter schools near Asian communities. But in Brooklyn, Asian enrollment in the Success Academy in Bensonhurst has reached 24 percent. These percentages fall far short of Asian enrollment in the zoned public schools located in heavily Asian neighborhoods: 92 percent in PS 124, near Manhattan’s Chinatown; 89 percent Asian in PS 160, near Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Still, the numbers clearly suggest a growing interest.

Many Asian-American parents want to send their kids to academically rigorous, high-performing schools, and the best-run charter schools fit that description. But travel logistics matter a great deal for elementary-school students, and charter schools are located too far away from most working Asian parents. Once schools become more available in heavily Asian neighborhoods, demand could surge.

Neither New York nor the country at large has enough charter school seats. But it’s not just blacks and Hispanics who are desperate for them—Asians need charter schools, too. As teachers’ unions leverage power to dictate how and when students learn, and as curricula more and more begin to resemble activism playbooks, all neighborhoods, of every race and ethnicity, need more charter schools, in order to provide families with viable alternative options. If Governor Hochul and the state legislature don’t want to admit that the house is burning, they can at least open the doors and let the children go.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next