Public Policy Forum Presentation

Forum Presentation: Charter Schools in New York and the Nation March 11, 2009

Charter Schools in New York and the Nation

Jonas S. Chartock
Executive Director, Charter Schools Institute, State University of New York

Richard Nathan

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. I want to particularly thank Bob Ward for that warm introduction and for being so flexible in scheduling this morning’s talk.

Jonas S. Chartock is executive director of the State University of New York's Charter Schools Institute. He spoke at the Institute on March 11 about the current status and future prospects for charter schools in New York and the nation. These are his prepared remarks. To listen to a recording of his presentation, click here; to watch a video, click here.

With the danger of having the start of this talk sound more like an Alan Chartock speech, I thought I would start today by asking you a political question, albeit a rhetorical one: What do President Obama, Bobby Jindal, John McCain, Malcolm Smith, Michael Bloomberg, and Gov. Paterson all have in common?

Assuming you came here knowing what this talk was about, I probably needn’t answer that; they are all proponents of charter schooling.

Today, my aim is to speak with you about the state of charter schools, both nationally and here in New York, that has led to this wide-ranging support. Over the course of the next few minutes I’m hoping to accomplish a few things – I would like for each of you to leave here having learned some undisputed, current facts about charter schools. As you know, despite their national political popularity and the rise of more and more charter school success stories, there are few more hotly debated concepts in public education here in New York than charters, and all too often, people on both sides of the issue toss around more rhetoric than fact. So hopefully we can cut through the rhetoric today.

Then I would like to give you a sense of some of the current successes and challenges of charters, and finish up with a few areas to keep a particular eye on over the coming months.

Before we get to that though, I want to do two things: tell you about the perspective with which I approach charters and then give you a quick refresher on the facts around these schools.

I came to the issue with my own initial perspective, no different from you, and given my background and experiences, however, I don’t know where you’d assume I would come down on the issue.

  • First, I am a proud traditional public school product and son of an excellent traditional public school teacher.
  • I am a student of industrial and labor relations, having completed my undergraduate degree at The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, where I participated in labor organizing and community empowerment programs.
  • I was a full time, union-card-carrying teacher originally through the Teach For America program, staying on as a fourth-grade teacher in Compton, Calif.
  • I have been an aspiring school leader in the traditional public school system.
  • I’ve trained and managed often young, alternatively certified teachers.
  • And I’ve been a researcher and policy analyst, having started a think tank in Texas that focused on public school choice policy.

So had you not known my current job, where would you peg me on charters?

Whatever you may have guessed, the reality is that I came to charters as a healthy skeptic of all education reforms touted by some as silver bullets, but I do look at the potential for the impact of charters on our entire public education system with great hope and optimism.

The real point of that exercise was to illustrate an example in me of what I see as a trend: that the profile of those of us who see potential value in the charter sector for students has morphed and expanded in much the same way our teaching force has over this last decade and a half. That is, just as tens of thousands of smart, motivated people have gone into teaching through alternative certification programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project/New York Teacher Fellows – thereby changing the profile of inner-city public school teachers pretty dramatically – the mold of the “charter advocate” has shifted and must somehow now include union presidents like Randi Weingarten, who is the board chair of a charter school herself in New York City; traditional public school district superintendents like Abe Saveedra in Houston, Michelle Rhee in D.C., and Joel Klein in New York City, and all the politicians I named earlier.

This speaks to the evolution of charter schools becoming less of an experiment in our country. Introduced over a decade and a half ago, charter schools are now a more mainstream, legitimate strand of the fabric of public education.

I want to share with you some of the key indicators that lead me to believe that this trend will continue.

First, I think it is important to clarify a few facts around charters so we’re all talking about the same things here.

Put simply, charter schools are elementary or secondary public schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, primarily raising student achievement, which are set forth in each school's charter.

While charter schools provide an alternative to district-based public schools, they are part of the public education system and are not allowed to charge tuition. Where space at a charter school is limited, admission is mandated to be allocated by random lottery. Charter schools cannot base admissions decisions on ability.

Some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a certain field – e.g. arts, mathematics, etc. Others simply seek to provide a better and more efficient general education than nearby traditional public schools.

Charter schools are non-profit organizations, subject to annual financial statement audits.

Charter schools are governed by their own boards of trustees. The strength and experience of these boards is one of the key factors for our SUNY Trustees when deciding which schools to authorize.

Charter schools must comply with laws regarding health, safety, civil rights and special education.

Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act apply to charter schools and their board meetings are open to the public, and the public has the same access to charter school records as it does to school district records.

Charter school students must take all the same state tests as traditional public schools and have to meet the state’s performance requirements and those set forth in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Very importantly, charters have to prove that they are adding value. In New York, an initial charter is granted for five years. At the end of that charter term, and at the end of EVERY charter term thereafter, a charter school must apply to renew its charter, not a simple process. So unlike traditional district schools, charter schools have a set amount of time to prove that they have earned the right to exist.

The types of charters that exist from state to state are often defined by the laws that govern them – for instance, in New York, I would estimate that over 90 percent of the charters can be defined as college preparatory in nature, whereas in Texas, where I spent the better part of the last decade, the majority of charters were drop-out recovery schools, residential treatment centers, juvenile justice schools, and vocational schools by mission. Only about 13 percent of those in Texas are considered college prep in mission, in contrast to New York.

There are two principles that guide charter schools. The first is that they operate as autonomous public schools free of many of the procedural requirements of district public schools. The second is that charter schools are accountable for student achievement.

Of the 70 schools SUNY has authorized to date, seven have been shut down for academic underperformance. The SUNY Trustees are the only authorizer in the state to not renew a school based on academic performance. These are tough but necessary decisions that are grounded in the fundamental accountability promise of charter schools.

I should note that New York is one of only a few states in the country that has a law that allows for the swift closure of schools – something that the charter school movement must address nationwide, and we’ll talk about that more later.

The rules and structure of charter schools depend on state authorizing legislation that also differs from state to state. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for three to five years. In New York, an initial charter is granted for five years. The terms of subsequent renewals vary, but right now, none can be issued for longer than five years.

Minnesota was the first state in the country to enact charter-school legislation in 1991. New York State was the 36th state to pass a charter school law. Today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have some type of charter-school legislation. I can’t help but think that being so late in the game also allowed New York to learn a great deal from the challenges and successes of those states that got an earlier start.

Some national statistics:

  • As of May 2008, there were more than 1 million students attending over 4,000 public charters schools in the U.S.
  • Still, public charter schools comprise only 3 percent of all public school students in the United States.
  • Among all states, Arizona has the highest market share of students in public charter schools, at 9 percent.
  • Among all cities, New Orleans has the highest market share of students in public charter schools, at 55 percent. There has been discussion recently of the city moving to an all-charter model.
  • There are limits or caps on the number of charter schools that can operate in 26 states.
  • Minority students make up over 60 percent of all students in public charter schools (2006-2007).
  • Generally speaking, public charter schools nationally are not funded at the same level as district public schools.
  • Nationally, charters receive only 78 percent in average per-pupil funding of school district average.
  • 74.5 percent of all New York State charter-school students qualify for free or reduced price lunch – this is consistent with the fact that students attending charters across the country are by and large economically disadvantaged.

In some states, like Arkansas and Texas, the State Board of Education authorizes charters. In other states, like Maryland and Colorado, only the local school districts can approve charters.

One of the strengths of the New York Charter Schools Act is that it provides three routes to apply for a charter: the State University Trustees, the Board of Regents, and local boards of education. However, only the State University Trustees and the Board of Regents can approve applications statewide; local boards of education are limited to approving applications for charter schools within their districts’ boundaries.

Applications submitted to the State University Trustees are reviewed by my team at the Charter Schools Institute, which was created by the Trustees to assist it in carrying out its responsibilities as a charter entity. Put simply, our shop makes recommendations to the SUNY Trustees regarding who should be awarded a charter, monitors how they are progressing during the life of the school, and then makes a recommendation regarding whether or not they should be kept in business based on a rigorous evaluation process.

New York currently has 115 charter schools in operation, 49 were authorized by SUNY, 24 authorized by the board of regents, 40 authorized by the New York City Dept of Education, and two authorized by the Buffalo City School District.

By far the largest numbers of charter schools, 82, are located in and around New York City. There are currently 10 charter schools in the Capital District and another 23 in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

25 additional charter schools have been approved and will open in September of 2009.

Another five schools to date have been approved to open in September of 2010. That number could grow before the start of that school year and likely will.

So how are these schools performing?

I don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers, so there is a summary of the figures that I am sharing today in the handout that was placed on your chair as you came in, but let me just recap a few highlights regarding New York charters, keeping in mind that we still have a great deal to learn about the success of charters across the country:

  • 85 percent of all New York State charter schools outperformed their local district on the 2007-08 state assessment in mathematics, a 16 percent increase over the prior year.
  • 74 percent of all New York State charter schools outperformed their local district on the 2007-08 state assessment in mathematics, an 11 percent increase over the prior year.
  • 92 percent of SUNY-authorized charter schools outperformed their local district in the state’s 2007-08 standardized exam in mathematics.
  • 76 percent of SUNY-authorized charter schools outperformed their local district in the state’s 2007-08 standardized exam in English language arts.

So charters are, on the whole, doing very well in New York with students who are economically at-risk. So how do we explain this performance?

I admit some potential bias here, but I believe fundamental to at least in part explaining the success of this reform in New York State is the authorizing process.

I came to my position at SUNY with a strong belief that if we are not doing the right work in terms of deciding who runs these schools and truly holding them accountable for superior performance, we are doomed to never realize the real power of change charters seem to offer. To the chagrin of some charter advocates who believe that simply offering choice is enough, I believe it only makes sense to invest in programs that have a high likelihood of significantly outperforming the current options – this is fortunately in line with the policies and practices set forth by the SUNY Trustees.

It is only when we maximize the performance of charters that we will we know if their impact is limited to only reaching a small percentage of students effectively, namely those to whom they provide direct service, or if they will have further systemic reach, which at this point, we can only point to anecdotally.

Charters have emerged from their first 15 years in relatively strong form nationally through a combination of political and pedagogical phenomena:

Charter Schools are hitting a sweet spot of sorts in terms of political support, as I mentioned earlier. One reason why are the aforementioned results, but also the idea that charters have become the more politically and socially tolerable of the school choice options in terms of policy. That is, charters emerged at roughly the same time as private school voucher programs, but nationally charters have gained far greater traction. What was similar between these movements was that the state’s per pupil allotment would follow the student, giving parents more choices. However, what made public charters so much more politically viable and attractive to those of us who pay attention to where our taxes are applied, is that charters kept the money in the public system where we can monitor and hold stewards accountable to our investments in terms of academic performance and adherence to the Establishment Clause. By effectively situating themselves as the more desired choice alternative and as parents voiced their desire for choice and local control, charters began to grow.

While we are just now entering an era where we’ll be able to enjoy longitudinal data coming from charter states, from an educational perspective, it is hard to argue that the common elements of charters are working not only in the charters themselves, but also within the traditional public schools to which many of these concepts are being applied. For instance, most charters feature longer school days and school years that lead to more time on task. It is no surprise that research shows that when students spend more time working on their academics, particularly core subject areas, including Saturdays at some charters and often over the summers, they’ll learn and retain more.

Another feature of many charters are smaller school sizes. By creating the opportunity for stronger relationships with faculty and attention to individual student development, we’ve seen a wave of small schooling taking place across our public education system in charterlike settings like the Oakland Small Schools Initiative, and the development of autonomous, smaller magnet style schools within districts like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Parental involvement and engagement is another feature that many charters seem to hold in common, setting certain expectations of what parental commitment looks like in particular.

A number of charter management organizations are also building their models around these characteristics of school structure, organization, and management and a particularly strong focus on data-driven decision making. I should note that a charter management organization is a non-profit organization hired by boards of charters to lead instruction and often manage back offices. One of the most successful networks authorized by SUNY, the Uncommon Schools network in New York City, Rochester, and next year here in Troy, not only have strong processes of having their faculty and teachers work with data fluidly throughout the year to drive their instruction, but also create strong, consistent, classroom management and teaching methods in which they are effectively training their often young, new teachers.

In fact, that network is also involved with the KIPP and Achievement First networks and the Teach For America program in creating an innovative teacher preparation program called Teacher U. This program, offered via Hunter College, is basically using a curriculum based on best practices in teaching students from underserved communities to train a new generation of teachers with far less focus on ed theory which is often the primary focus in most of our traditional teacher prep programs like the one I attended. Instead, the program features direct teacher training from current, excellent teachers. It will be exciting to see this program and those like it grow.

Finding great leaders to run these schools and teachers to fill the needs of these networks that are growing around the country is the first of a few challenges I believe charters face moving forward.

This challenge of finding the human capital to fulfill the missions many of these charters feature can be difficult. While it is a lot easier in New York City to find teachers and aspiring leaders who have the drive to put in what are often longer hours and the experience, particularly working with students from inner-city and under-resourced backgrounds, than it might be upstate. To address this need, many schools use teacher and principal search firms.

One experiment going on in New York City, The Equity Project Charter School which will be paying all of its teachers $125,000, will show us a new HR and salary structure – it opens this fall via the New York City Department of Education.

Another, and perhaps the biggest challenge for both charters and the districts in which they are located alike, is making things work financially. Now I know you have all had a presentation here by Bill Lake where he spent an entire session on the issue of charter-school finance – so I’ll just briefly outline the related challenges as I see them.

The foundation of charter school funding in New York State is the per-pupil payments charter schools receive from the district of residence of the student attending the charter school.

New since 2007 is the availability of state transition aid for those districts whose local charter schools’ enrollment is 2 percent of district enrollment. This funding is significant.

  • There is no shortage of opinions about how this all plays out in practice.

    • Some say the districts actually come out ahead because not all the per-pupil funding follows the student. Others say that districts lose the opportunity to maximize efficiencies of scale when their enrollment drops. Still others point out that charters never had efficiencies of scale to begin with and have always had to do more with less.

    • It is hard to argue with the fact that districts do face planning and budgeting challenges when they cannot predict the opening of a new charter school, enrollment fluctuations, or even charter-school closures. There are those who argue that the negative financial impact on the district, or the very fact that they need to more nimbly respond to competition, is the key driver of district reform.

  • In terms of the direct funding challenges experienced by charters, it is clear that they have sought to make up for the gaps in state funding – particularly the fact that they do not receive facilities funding like their district counterparts – through philanthropy; and I can only imagine the challenge of seeking this type of support will continue to become even more difficult in this economic climate.

    • Some charter advocates also hope the president’s stimulus-fund money may ultimately address this issue. No matter how that winds up, without philanthropic support, the bottom line is that the cash-strapped charters are forced to cover their capital expenses through per-pupil operating expenses.

  • This debate seems never-ending, which only proves that we’ll need some superclear, mutually understood, independent studies.

  • We hope to produce some research in this very area.

    • The conventional wisdom is that we are a long way off from charters having the capacity to entirely replace the public system so figuring out a way to fully fund all public schools, charter and traditional alike, is key.

In addition to the challenge of finding human capital, and obvious fiscal challenges, the broader charter school movement faces the unique challenge associated with a high demand for quality oversight.

Putting New York State aside for the sake of this point, the quality of authorizing and oversight has been uneven across the country. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is doing some very good work in trying to get the word out to authorizers regarding best practices, but the fact remains that there are authorizers who are only doing this work because they are mandated by law to do so and in a number of states are the only authorizing game in town. Many are also faced with laws that don’t allow them to do their work effectively – for instance, in Texas, schools that the state attempted to shut down eight years ago are now still in business due to a law that allows for endless judicial injunctions.

Again, while we can always improve the work we do in New York State, I think we are relatively far ahead of the game; I can speak for our group at SUNY when I say we are always trying to figure out ways to improve the likelihood of success of our authorized schools by re-examining our application practices and renewal policies.

I should also note that state associations around the country are also taking on the quality control issue by, in some cases, tying association membership to performance or at least the commitment to reaching certain levels of performance.

A similar authorizer-related challenge is determining the right mix of schools. If we are not clear and intentional in making these choices, we could easily wind up with a system that offers essentially two options – the classic college-prep charter model and the traditional model, as opposed to the multiple styles and models the Charter Act allows and one could say encourages. This is why while this year the trustees authorized three new charters to the very successful Uncommon Schools network I described earlier, they also authorized a brand-new stand-alone model from a group in Ithaca that is focused on sustainability education.

The final challenge I would point out this morning has to do charters either accepting, dealing with, or overcoming the criticisms that they get strong results because the most motivated and/or knowledgeable parents are sending their kids to charter schools and the claims that that they do not serve as many students with special education needs or who are English-language learners.

No one can dispute the fact that parents have to actively make the choice to send their child to a charter school. However, they may do so because they feel their child is being held back from achieving their potential, OR because their child is not performing at all in the traditional school and they know they need a change.

There are plenty of studies that show that many charter students come into these schools well behind grade level, and that upon arrival they are actually growing their performance levels at rates that exceed the rates featured at their former traditional public schools.

Again, I’m hoping to see more research in this area.

I should also note that there are also many charter schools that are serving student populations with large numbers of students with special education needs and English language learners in New York State and across the country.

My point here is that charters are challenged by the very need to answer these criticisms even if they are not warranted.


I want to finish up today by sharing a few items that I would put on your radar as things to watch for if you're looking to get a sense of where charters go from here, both in New York and across the country.

The first is union involvement in charter schools.

As you may recall, one of the original proponents of charter schooling was Albert Shankar, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. His point was, and I tend to agree, that no one knows great teaching better than great teachers. I would also note, however, that a great teacher does not necessarily a great school leader make. But I digress.

As I mentioned earlier, unions are indeed running charters now, but what I think we need to watch for now are the organizing efforts of non-union-run schools and the new types of collective bargaining and teacher empowerment movements that we are starting to see emerge in the sector. For instance, the Green Dot charter network in California actually encourages the teachers on each individual campus to collectively bargain their own campus-specific contracts. There is now a Green Dot School in the Bronx which has partnered with the UFT.

As you all may have heard, the UFT is also organizing at a longstanding KIPP campus in New York City, and a friend of mine who runs the union in Houston, Texas, of all places, is aiming for a few charter networks down there. So we’ll see.

As for my opinion on this, I would simply offer that the best charter schools seem to empower teachers, but also remain nimble and entrepreneurial in order to produce the best outcomes.

Again, something to watch.

Communication amongst and between charters themselves and also with traditional districts is another development to watch for.

I see it as part of the authorizer’s role to increase communication and the sharing of best practices and often talk to charters, other authorizers, and districts. But there is a challenge in getting these groups to work together.

Competition, real and perceived; independence; and past bad experiences are just a few of the obstacles I have seen.

One thing I learned in Texas was that until charters get out of each other’s way, they’ll get very little done collectively. This is particularly true when it comes to improving sectorwide legislation.

New York, unlike Texas, has a far more homogenous population of charters, and has a good state association that is growing in terms of the support services being provided.

Just as these schools more broadly share stories with the public, I think we’ll see more and more school districts finding it necessary to tell their stories and market themselves. This can be a good thing as parents should know what they getting and actively engage, choose, and track delivery.

Next, I would look for whether we actually make it easier for states to replicate and reproduce high performing schools.

There are still barriers in our charter laws that prevent students from, say, a charter middle school to flow directly into a charter high school in the same network; it will be interesting to see if programmatic continuity is a legislative priority.

It will also be interesting to watch whether the Obama administration acts on the strong words of support from the president yesterday and actually steps into states and pushes for the lifting of caps on charters and effectively lets charter schools grow while pushing states to close down underperforming schools.

The next question to watch for answers on is whether or not the human capital will be there to sustain the early success of charters as they attempt to grow to scale.

Foundations across the country are looking for further expansion of successful models, and many of the charter networks are doing a good job of identifying potential teacher leaders early in their careers – they are essentially building a bench of folks from which to pull new instructional leaders for new schools. I would also look for charters to look to the business sector for a potential new cadre of new leaders/thinkers.

I spoke at the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Conference last week where charter schools were one of the focus topics, yet they were mentioned in nearly every session I attended.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the economic crisis in the country actually behoove the sector. Teach For America, now a pipeline of sorts for charter leaders and teachers alike, has already seen 35,000 applicants this year alone, a 43 percent growth from last year, including 25 percent of the Spellman senior class and 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors.

Lastly, the future of charters very much rests on the continued emergence of research and best practice work – that is, the real facts about performance and which charter inputs are leading to success will be imperative to document.

We are seeing other states publishing reports on 10 years of the charter experience, and it is time for New York State to do the same.

This will require data from SED, and we look forward to working with our friends at SED to access the data. I see the SUNY Charter Institute being in a unique, valuable position to do this analysis/work.

Assuming states like ours do their work of enhancing their laws and that authorizers do their work, I think we see a strong likelihood that charters will become woven even further into the fabric of our public education system.

I look forward to working with many of you here to ensure that New York does so with a constant eye toward quality and with the best interests of our students at the forefront of our decision making.

Thank you.

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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.