Charter School Expansion Faces Tough Fight in New York

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to allow dozens of new charter schools to open in New York City has set the stage for a charged battle in the coming months over the future of the city’s school system.

The governor’s proposal opens the possibility that the charter sector could expand its foothold in the nation’s largest school system. But charters, which have always faced fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and left-leaning Democrats, face a turbulent road ahead, as the city’s public school system grapples with the loss of thousands of students and some of the dollars that follow them. In New York City, ongoing fights over the sharing of school campuses with charters could further inflame the debate.

It remains unclear whether Ms. Hochul, who has not emphasized education issues since she took office in 2021, will prioritize charters during budget negotiations in which she and state legislators will contend with other hot-button issues, including New York’s bail laws.

Still, leaders of some of the city’s largest charter school networks said Ms. Hochul’s support made them optimistic.

“What we’re trying to do is something that is just common sense,” the governor said after her state budget presentation on Wednesday.

More than 180,000 children statewide attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and New York City is home to a large majority of them. But unlike some of the nation’s other large school districts, local growth has been relatively restricted: Charters educate roughly 14 percent of local public school children, a lower percentage than in cities like Philadelphia where charter schools enroll nearly one in three students or in Washington, D.C., where they educate nearly 50 percent of students.

Nationally, charters have been growing, and in New York City, even as district schools and private institutions have lost students, charters have gained them, largely because many schools are still adding new grades. But some established networks have struggled to fill seats, and some have seen enrollment declines.

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Under a cap set by the State Legislature, no more than 460 charter licenses can be issued statewide. New York City also has its own cap on the number of charters, which was reached more than three years ago.

The governor’s proposal would eliminate the city’s separate limit, and allow charter operators to apply for the more than 80 licenses that are still available statewide. Under Ms. Hochul’s plan, permits for charter schools that have closed, known as “zombie licenses,” would also be reissued. (Currently, there are roughly two dozen so-called zombie charters.)

Charter schools typically receive less public funding than district schools, and Ms. Hochul also proposed raising the charters’ per-pupil funding by 4.5 percent.

Claudia Espinosa, the founder of a local nonprofit that mentors Latina girls, said at a Bronx rally in support of charters this week that she dreamed of opening a charter school to reach more children. “But at the moment that is not a possibility,” Ms. Espinosa said.

“We don’t want to have barriers in their way — they already have enough. We need to allow them the freedom to choose the kind of education they want to receive,” she added.

The governor’s proposed changes could dramatically transform the educational landscape in some corners of New York, where enrollment losses in district schools have prompted cuts to teaching staffs and school programs. Still, it is unclear whether the governor’s plan could win enough support among Democrats in the State Legislature, several of whom excoriated the proposals.

In a joint statement, three downstate senators — including John Liu, the chair of the New York City Education Committee — said they were “deeply disturbed” by the plan, because they said it could deplete the resources of district schools.

In Buffalo, the governor’s hometown, where charters educate about one in four children, the city’s school board has also raised the concern that too many schools are competing for too few students. Several other American cities have faced rounds of school closures when competition for students increased.

Charter leaders argue that lifting restrictions would offer Black and Latino families more opportunities for their children and respond to unmet demand in some areas. Jane Martínez Dowling, a longtime executive at KIPP, the nation’s largest charter network, said in a statement that the proposed changes would empower “more students to access the excellent education they deserve.”

Governor Hochul’s plan represented her clearest public support to date for charter schools. Her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, vocally backed the movement, standing alongside families at Albany rallies and battling with the state’s powerful teachers’ unions.

Ms. Hochul’s campaign was supported by several charter promoters, including the billionaire investor Daniel Loeb. But she was also endorsed by the state teachers’ union in the Democratic primaries, the first time the union backed a candidate for governor since 2006. On Wednesday, the union’s president, Andrew Pallotta, said he had “grave concerns” over the proposals.

Since Democrats seized control of the State Senate in 2018, efforts to change the state’s charter laws have largely been blocked in budget negotiations.

Ms. Hochul named several other education issues as priorities in her budget plan, including raising tuition at the state’s public colleges, and financing schools at the level required by state law for “the first time in history” with a $2.7 billion rise in Foundation Aid. (A lawsuit brought by parents to force the state to provide more funding was settled after Ms. Hochul agreed to an increase.)

The funding increase won praise from education advocates, but it was largely overshadowed by a mix of excitement and frustration over the governor’s charter school proposal. Her plan could add additional fuel to disputes over space in particular.

In New York City, the Education Department is required to provide either space or rental support for charter schools. Many schools share buildings across the city without issue and roughly a tenth of those arrangements include charters. But fights over space have sometimes gotten ugly, and education experts expect them to intensify under a mayoral administration more friendly to charters and as city schools are required to shrink their class sizes, which could require them to spread students across more classrooms.

In recent months, the Panel for Educational Policy, the governing body for city public schools, voted on several plans to move charter schools run by Success Academy into district buildings across Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

In the lead-up to the decisions, protests erupted at several school campuses. Hundreds of high school students in Springfield Gardens walked out of class in December over one proposal. At another rally in the Bronx, the State Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, joined families who were arguing against a proposal to allow a Success Academy school to move into a district campus.

At public meetings, many charter students pleaded with school officials to allow district buildings to be shared, arguing that they deserved the same opportunities as other children.

Several plans were ultimately approved, but school officials canceled three others last month. Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s founder, said that she did not learn the plans would be canceled until reading the news, and said she was waiting for officials to “right the wrong that has been committed.”

Ms. Moskowitz called the governor’s budget announcement a “moment of kids coming before politics.” But she added: “Now of course, proposing something — and it being enacted — are two different things.”

Some Democrats, including Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the State Assembly’s Education Committee, have argued that more fundamental changes in the sector are essential before party members will consider an expansion of charter schools, including stricter requirements for reporting the funding they receive from nongovernmental sources.

“The conference as a whole wants answers to a lot of these questions,” he said this fall. “If charters would like to expand, I would definitely like to see them be on an even playing field.”

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