Waite: Let’s stop pretending charter schools are the answer

A man standing arms crossed

FILE - Re’Shawn Rogers, of Albany, founder of Destine Preparatory Charter School in Schenectady in February 2021

Article Audio:

A few weeks ago, I called Schenectady’s only charter school, Destine Preparatory Charter School, to set up a visit. 

I never heard back. 

I called again a few days later. 

I never heard back. 

A few days after that, I called back one more time. Finally, someone in the school’s office politely acknowledged the unreturned calls were no accident. They didn’t have an interest in talking to me. 

So I called Cathy Lewis, the longest-tenured Schenectady City School District Board of Education member, to find out what she’d been hearing about Destine Prep, which opened at the start of the school year and serves fewer than 80 elementary school students in a district with an enrollment of around 9,300.

“Not very much,” she said. 

That’s how it is with charter schools. Many people seem to continually call their number, but as of yet, they haven’t provided any real answer. 

Make no mistake, there is no denying that charter schools provide great benefit to the very small subset of families who are able to take advantage of what are basically publicly funded private schools. 

But when it comes to the larger mission of improving public education, charter schools are simply one very small piece. In fact, they may be doing more harm than good. 

That’s why it’s disappointing Gov. Kathy Hochul has inspired renewed calls for support of charter schools, albeit through fairly modest proposals. Specifically, the governor’s executive budget calls for removing the regional cap on charter schools in the state and reissuing licenses of closed charter schools, also known as “zombie charters.” The biggest impact will be in New York City, but effects could certainly ripple upstate.  

The governor’s support, tepid as it may be, is clearly political. It’s an offering to those on the right – who tend to favor school choice – following the closest New York gubernatorial election in decades. It’s also a nod to some on the left, who view charter schools as a welcome option, particularly for families in historically disadvantaged communities. 

The governor’s proposals have reignited a debate we simply don’t need. Her proposals have reenergized the belief for some that charter schools can provide a broad solution to much-needed improvements in public education. 

Not only are these beliefs misguided and unfounded, the renewed conversation is coming at exactly the wrong time. Emerging from the pandemic, our nation and our state faces a critical time in public education. Nationwide, standardized math test scores last year compared to scores in 2019 showed the largest drop ever recorded in the exams’ three decades of existence. In addition, disparities between students in poorer school districts and wealthier districts are only increasing, the New York Times has reported.  

Schenectady’s test results indicate just how dire the situation is here: No eighth-grade Schenectady students passed the state math test last spring.

Charter schools, beneficial as they may be to a limited number of families, are a major distraction. Our entire focus right now should be on doing everything we can to improve public education for all. 

Yes, the governor’s budget includes $34.5 billion in total School Aid, the highest level of state aid in history. Still, as has now been argued for decades, charters peel away dollars from public schools. New York state’s schools paid $3.2 billion to charter schools in 2021-2022.

In Schenectady, Destine’s $13,614 per-pupil rate for 78.25 students totaled more than $1 million for the current year. To be sure, state Charter School Aid paid roughly $850,000, meaning the district’s tuition cost was only $215,000, according to a district spokesperson. But the school district pays additional charter fees on top. Last year, the district paid charter school costs of $5,921,448 and received $1,169,015 back in state aid. The district also provides buses to Destine at a cost of more than $155,000 for the year. 

Especially upsetting about the public school funding that gets diverted to charter schools is the fact that, statewide, charter schools are sitting on more than $965 million in cash, up from roughly $400 million in 2017, according to the NYSED Charter School Directory data. Was this really the year we needed to be talking about doing more for charter schools? 

Charter schools have been around in New York since 1998. If they’d been some great boon to public education, wouldn’t we have seen fruit by now? 

Instead, with charters, we know exactly what we’re getting. And that’s mixed results, with the benefit only helping a few. 

In New York state, 48 of 407 authorized schools have closed since 1998 as a result of not meeting the standards of their charters. That means they either produced poor academic results, struggled financially, or faced other challenges. 

Prior to Destine’s arrival this year, Schenectady has only watched charter schools fail. The International Charter School of Schenectady closed in 2008 after the school’s roughly 585 students in grades kindergarten through eight didn’t meet academic standards. The oversight agency said test scores didn’t improve, and teacher instruction and classroom management were poor, according to Gazette reporting. 

Statewide, approximately 350 charter schools are operating this year, and, yes, many produce much better outcomes than general public schools. 

But we know that charter schools tend to attract families who are more involved, with complex application processes weeding out the less interested. These are the findings by researchers such as Ryane McAuliffe Straus, chair of the Department of History and Political Science at The College of Saint Rose, who has spent eight years studying charter schools, specifically in Albany. 

What’s more, charter schools consistently take fewer English-Language Learners and fewer students with disabilities. For instance, while the City School District of Albany’s population includes 12% English-Language Learners and 16% students with disabilities, the KIPP Albany Community School includes just 1% ELL students and 2% students with disabilities. Similar population totals are present at most of the city’s seven charter schools, according to NYSED data. 

All of this inflates charter schools’ performances. And these stronger outcomes, in turn, let charter school leaders and charter advocates make the case that charter schools can do more with less. This logic is then used by some to justify everything from lower pay for teachers to reduced funding for public education overall.

This leaves poorer-performing schools behind. 

“We take these really involved parents, who are really dedicated and willing to do the work and find the right school for their child and go through the application and make the change. These are the active, motivated parents. And so what we’re really doing is we’re taking an active, democratic voice, removing it from a community institution in a public school, and privatizing it,” said Straus, of Saint Rose. “This is going to make it more difficult to make any change in our public schools.”

The result, as some especially involved families flee to charter schools and as wealthier families flee disadvantaged districts entirely, is we end up shaming “failing” public school systems and wagging our fingers rather than working out real solutions. We look for lifeboats like charters instead of investing in real changes that can lift all boats. 

Here’s what we should be talking more about: We should be talking about how to better support teachers. We also need to reorganize school systems to cut down on administrative bloat that diverts resources away from what can truly improve things inside the classroom. We need to continue adding more support for social and emotional services. We also need to continue bringing vocational and subject-focused tracks into the general public schools. What’s more, we need to make tutoring widely available and figure out how to extend the school day and the school year, as well as expand offerings of universal prekindergarten. 

These are the ways we can begin to address wide-scale achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged communities. And all of this needs as much attention and financial support as possible. 

I’m all for new ideas to improve public education. But charter schools aren’t a new idea, and they aren’t helping advance the big picture of public education. In fact, they are likely contributing to the continued disparities we currently see. 

If charter schools had the solutions, shouldn’t we have heard it by now? In Schenectady, I gave the lone charter school that chance. They declined. 

That’s because they don’t have the answer. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County


Bill Marincic

Competition is a good thing, but Democrats hate competition. That’s why they’re so against school choice. They’d rather indoctrinate our children, than letting them earn a real education.

Leave a Reply