Charter school debate continues with new ones coming

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s announcement on Aug. 18 to open 18 new charter schools this fall increased the total number of New York city charter schools to 78 and stirred enormous dissent within Community Education Councils across the city.

Hours later, a detailed letter was sent to Bloomberg and Klein from Class Size Matters, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing class sizes. The letter was led by Leonie Haimson, executive director of C.S.M., and signed by C.E.C. members representing 12 different school districts, parents and members of various citywide education councils.

The idea of charter schools solidified in New York City in Dec. 1998, when the New York State Charter Schools Act was passed. These schools are independent public schools that adhere to the terms of a five-year performance contract or “charter.” Anyone can submit a charter application, which is sometimes submitted in conjunction with an educational organization.

Charter schools are given higher autonomy and are not held to traditional school regulations on curriculum development, staffing and budgeting. In return, the schools are expected to increase student achievement, according to the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. Charter schools are also not allowed to discriminate in admissions. Attending a charter school is free of cost, since they are still public schools funded by the Department of Education. In the 2008-2009 school year, the per pupil allocation for New York State charter schools is $12, 432.

According to Bloomberg’s press statement, charter schools do display higher achievement rates than traditional schools. For example, 84.9 percent of charter school students met or exceeded grade-level standards in math for the 2007-2008 school year. This compares to the 74.3 percent of students citywide and the 80.7 statewide.

But a higher achievement isn’t surprising, argued Class Size Matters, since charter schools are allowed to cap class sizes at lower numbers than public schools. The current United Federation of Teachers class-size limits are 25 for kindergarten, 29 for grades 1-3 and 32 for grades 4-6, numbers the union had to fight for and many parents are still unhappy about. Charter schools, however, can decide their own class size limits which results in a lower average class size across schools. For example, the Manhattan Charter School caps all of its classes, regardless of grade, at 24 students.

Achievement may also be charter school’s only way to stay open however, as charters are evaluated on their proposed achieved achievement goals instead of being compared to other public school test results. Therefore, if a high performing charter school is more successful than another public school but doesn’t meet its own proposed goals, the school is at-risk to getting its charter revoked, said Genie DePolo, principal of M.C.S.

C.M.S. also argued that space and money given to charter schools steals the amount of space and money available to traditional schools, citing that more than one fourth of all city principals said that school overcrowding is worsened because charter schools were placed into their buildings. However, the Department of Education allocates space to charters after assessing classroom utilization in all its buildings, only moving in a charter school if classrooms aren’t being filled, said Stephanie Mauterstock, business director of Manhattan Charter.

Charter schools are providing some sort of alleviation to area schools, however, as a recent addition to charter school regulations now require each charter to give lottery preference to students living in their district.

“We’re serving the exact same community that [other public schools] service,” Mauterstock said. “[The D.O.E.] is making us more of a community school.”

A variety of other issues are still at hand, such as a charter schools’ ability to hire uncertified teachers and develop their own curriculum.

But the battle isn’t new and regardless of how good or bad charter schools are for the city, the Downtown Express has placed those issues aside to take a closer look at the individual charter schools in Lower Manhattan. This week we focus on Manhattan Charter School on the Lower East Side and John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy in the Financial District. In our Back to School section next week, we’ll profile Ross Global Academy.

— Sisi Wei