Research & Commentary: Popularity of New York Charters Shows the Need for Expansion

Published June 27, 2018

Results from an annual survey by the New York City Charter School Center (NYCCSC) reveals that Gotham charters received an estimated 79,600 applications for only 26,900 seat openings for the 2018–19 school year. That is a 9 percent increase over 2017–18 and a 47 percent increase compared to 2010–11, when NYCCSC began its survey.

Ninety-seven percent of charters that responded to the survey said they have a waiting list for seats, while 91 percent responded they have a waiting list that was at least twice the number of available seats. The number of applicants outnumbered the number of available seats in all five boroughs, with there being one seat available for roughly only one out of every four applicants in the Bronx, one for every two applicants in Brooklyn, one for every three in Manhattan and Queens, and one for every 4.5 applicants in Staten Island.

In certain neighborhoods, this dearth of seats is even more pronounced. In Harlem, there is only one open seat for every four applicants, higher than in the rest of Manhattan. In the Canarsie, Crown Heights, and Flatbush neighborhoods in Brooklyn, there is one available seat for every third applicant, higher than in the rest of the borough.

The NYCCSC survey data on this dearth of open seats in New York is reinforced by a April 2018 Fordham Institute report on “charter school deserts,” which they define as three continuous census tracts with poverty levels greater than 20 percent that do not have a charter school. Fordham identifies 21 different charter deserts in New York State, most of them within the five boroughs of New York City.

The Empire State has capped the number of charters that can open in the state at 460. State law allows for only 38 more charters to open in New York City. This number is completely inadequate to satisfy the needs of the thousands of New York parents who are seeking better educational options for their children than what is made available by their poorly performing neighborhood public schools. New York lawmakers should remove the charter cap and relax laws and policies that limit charter operations. 

While a massive expansion of charter schools would be welcome, universal private school choice in the form of vouchers or education savings accounts would be preferable, as the gold-standard empirical evidence shows. Still, charter schools should have their place. Nationally, they have provided a way out of failing traditional public schools for nearly three million children, and they provide competition for a bloated, sclerotic, unaccountable union-run public school system. This competition helps improve outcomes not just for the children who take advantage of school choice programs, but also for those who remain in their neighborhood public schools.

Simply put, if there weren’t a demand for an education better than what traditional neighborhood public schools provide, the demand for charters in New York wouldn’t exist. One in ten Big Apple students, more than114,000 children, now attends a charter school, and this number should grow to meet the needs of the city’s children. A child’s school should not be determined by his or her ZIP code. All parents, regardless of income or neighborhood, should be allowed to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend an effective school.

The following documents provide more information about charter schools and school choice.

NYC Charter Schools: 2018–19 Enrollment Lottery Estimates
This annual survey from the New York City Charter School Center shows parent demand for New York City charter schools has reached an all-time high. Demand increased by 9 percent for the 2018–19 school year. There were an estimated 79,600 applicants for the approximately 26,900 seats available in the anticipated 238 NYC charter schools operating this fall, while nine in 10 charter schools report having waiting lists that are at least twice the number of available seats. 

In Pursuit of the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools on Public School Students in New York City
This paper by Sarah A. Cordes of Temple University, published in Education Finance and Policy, analyzes the spillover effects of charter schools on traditional public school (TPS) students in New York City. The paper is among the first to estimate the impact of charter school co-location with TPS. Cordes found charter schools significantly increase TPS student performance in English language arts and math and decrease the probability of grade retention.

Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options
This Fordham Institute report defines “charter school deserts” as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools. The report’s authors found 39 of 42 charter states have at least one desert each, with the average number of deserts per state at 10.8. The authors suggest charter school operators need to look beyond city boundaries, to rural and suburban neighborhoods whose residents deserve more options. They also argue state and local policymakers should address the policy barriers that keep charters from locating where they are needed.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement–on-student-achievement
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomized students studied through lotteries and accounted for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons, research considered the most rigorous by scientific standards.

The Productivity of Charter Schools
In this study produced by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, the successes and failures of charter schools are examined. The study’s findings show charter schools are, on average, much more productive than traditional public schools in the same district. The authors conclude, “What we can say, based on our limited exploratory analysis of the [return on investment] for charter and [traditional public schools] sectors, is that the results suggest that the charter sectors in our sample jurisdictions are operating in a more productive manner than the [traditional public schools] sector at the funding and student achievement levels that currently exist.” 

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility
The Research Alliance (RA) undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008. RA found closing high schools produced meaningful benefits for future students, such as the middle schoolers who then had to choose a different high school. Many of these students ended up going to higher-performing schools than the closed ones, both in terms of the achievement and attendance of incoming students. “Post-closure” students’ outcomes improved significantly; the graduation rate for these students increased by 15 percentage points.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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