Do charter schools help NYC children?

In December the New York City Panel for Educational Policy approved three new charter schools, all of which are part of a network of charter schools run by Success Academy Charter Schools, which is run by former city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. This decision is part of an initiative undertaken by the New York City Board of Education to house multiple schools within one NYC Department of Education building in order to fill what it sees as underutilized facilities.

Many of these new schools, including these three charter schools, have been opposed by parents and teachers from the schools which are already located in these buildings. Those opposing these “co-locations” argue that the students of the district schools located in the buildings are adversely affected by the addition of the charter schools in the same building. These effects include limited access to facilities such as the gym, library and lunch room, increased class sizes as well as a disparity in the amount spent on the students of each school.

In the last year there have been two lawsuits brought against the NYC Department of Education, challenging the practice of housing charter schools in the same building as district schools. One lawsuit was brought by the N.A.A.C.P. and the other was brought by a group of public school parents along with the organization Class Size Matters.

At the same time that the NYC Department of Education is moving towards opening additional charter schools, the DOE has announced that it plans on closing up to nineteen district schools throughout the city for poor performance. These schools include two high schools each of which were expected to receive more than $2 million in federal stimulus money over three years for the purpose of improving the curriculum. This money will now go to the schools which will replace them.

The DOE has also identified five charter schools which are struggling. Three of these will be monitored until their five-year charters come up for renewal and decisions have yet to be made about the fate of the two remaining charter schools.

Supporters of charter schools argue that they provide families with public school choice options, allowing parents to choose the school that is best suited for their child. This choice mechanism supposedly creates competition within the public school system, pressuring school districts to reassess their educational practices, leading to overall systemic reform. It is also argued that charter schools act as laboratories of reform, identifying successful practices that can be replicated by traditional school district schools.

But are charter schools actually helping to make systemic improvements to the NYC education system or, are they only offering a small number of families with public school choice options?

Instead of opening these relatively small and unregulated charter schools and closing under-performing district schools, should the DOE perhaps focus more of its efforts on implementing system wide reforms that will elevate the level of education offered to all NYC children?

While the concept of charter schools is not inherently at odds with the need to improve the overall school system, it appears that the current DOE and mayor’s office focus should be less on closing district schools and replacing them with charter schools and more on figuring out what must be done to help all children in the city’s public schools.