Treat Traditional Public Schools Fairly
In March, supporters of charter schools flooded Albany to protest New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s stance on charter schools. According to rally organizer and founder of the Success Academy charter schools Eva Moskowitz, de Blasio supports policies that would “deny poor kids in Harlem an opportunity, a shot at life.” Such allegations sound serious—but can they be justified?
First, it helps to clarify what de Blasio actually proposed. Under the leadership of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City of New York provided buildings to charter schools free of rent, often taking space away from traditional public schools to do so. De Blasio suggested that some of these “co-locations” did not make sense for the City, and that charter schools should pay rent when they use City buildings. He subsequently reversed planned expansion of three Success Academy charters in City-owned school buildings.
Moskowitz claims to run some of the most successful schools in the state through better management than the NYC Department of Education, but a skeptical eye casts some doubts on those assertions.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, about 7% of students at Success Academy schools in New York City have limited English proficiency. Contrast that with New York City public schools at large: 14.5% have limited English proficiency. Success Academy schools have been accused of “counseling out” ‘hard-to-teach’ students, including English language learners, an option traditional public schools do not have. And even though their student populations may be more advantaged than those at non-charter peer schools, the Success Academy schools spend $2,072 more per pupil than their peer traditional public schools. Unfortunately, this is not just limited to the Success Academy system. Based on an analysis I conducted using state enrollment data, charter schools in New York City systematically under-enroll Hispanic students, English language learners, and students with disabilities compared to the traditional public school system (see Figure 1, for full tables see Appendix.)
Figure 1. Differences in Student Populations Served
Charters also impose significant costs on local school districts, to the detriment of students who remain enrolled in traditional schools. One recent study by professors at Syracuse University and Barnard College examined the impact of increasing charter school enrollments on two large school districts in New York, Buffalo and Albany. They estimate that each student enrolled in a charter can impose net costs on the district of up to $1,000. Not only does increased charter enrollment not free up money for the district to spend on other students, it actually takes away funds that could be used for teachers, textbooks, or other school supplies. Even using the somewhat more conservative estimate of a net loss of $750 per student, New York City may be spending an additional $36,000,000 because of charter schools – without strong evidence that they provide a better education.
Given these facts, de Blasio’s original policies sound like common sense, not a vicious attack on impoverished students’ life chances. Under the new leadership of Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the NYC Department of Education should think carefully about when, where, and for whom charter schools make educational sense, rather than blindly support them to score easy political points. Charging them rent to use New York City buildings, given their financial situation, makes good sense.
Economists are fond of reminding us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and education is no exception. When real costs exist, they should be shared equitably, not just shunted onto students who attend schools without major political donors at their helms. In March, the Legislature amended the provision to require New York City to provide co-locations, or rent privately owned facilities, for the charter schools for free in perpetuity. This will only exacerbate the discrepancies in per-pupil spending and the negative fiscal impact of charters on the traditional public school system.
The buzzword of the modern school reform movement has been ‘accountability.’ Fairness, however, is important to the goal of true accountability. De Blasio and the New York State legislature should hold charter schools accountable on equal standards with traditional public schools: this means demanding action to correct enrollment disparities and reforming the school financing system to ensure a more equitable distribution of taxpayer funds for public education.