The school playground is cramped, the day is bleak and chilly, but the kindergarten students are having fun, and one boy in particular resists going back inside. "You haven't made good choices," two teachers tell him. To his more cooperative classmates, the teachers say, "You have made good choices."
The use of the phrase "good choices" is no accident. "We believe in creating a democratic society where our children feel they have a choice," said school leader Rita Danis.
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But "choice" holds another meaning at UFT Charter Elementary, a new school in the East New York section of Brooklyn run by the teachers union. It is a charter school. As such it is key to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein's campaign to give city parents more choices about where to send their children to school.
While Bloomberg has set more requirements for public schools, he has, in an apparent contradiction, sought to encourage charter schools, which function outside of those rules. He hopes to more than double the number of charter schools in the city, from 47 to 100. "It's time to clear away the barriers to the creation of charter schools," Bloomberg said in a recent speech.
But charter schools, such as One World in Astoria (see related story in the Community Gazettes) and Carl Icahn in the Bronx (see related story in the Community Gazettes), educate only about one percent of city public school students and only four percent in the nation as a whole. So why have they attracted so much attention? And why do some people think they can help solve New York City's education problems?
THE APPEAL OF CHARTERS
Charter schools receive public money but are independently and privately run. Though they must comply with certain state regulations and health and safety rules, they do not have to operate under union contracts, and they exist largely outside the Department of Education bureaucracy.
The charter school movement began in the 1970s, the brainchild of Ray Budde, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. He suggested that individual teachers could be given contracts, which he dubbed charters, to explore new approaches. United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker then expanded the idea to call for granting entire schools charters (with union approval). The first charter school in the U.S. opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992. Today about 580,000 students in the country attend 2,400 charter schools.
But New York was slow to embrace charter schools. The legislature finally approved them in 1998 as part of a political deal. Governor George Pataki agreed to support a legislative pay raise if the lawmakers approved charters. The bill included a rigorous application process for charter schools and a ceiling on the number of new charter schools.
As Pataki hailed the bill's passage, he noted that dozens of state schools were considered to be failing. "We're telling the parents in those neighborhoods, you have no choice but to send your child to a school that we know fails. Well, now they're going to have an option," Pataki said, "and I think all the schools are going to be better because of that."
Seven years later, New York City's 47 charter schools have a total of about 12,000 students - compared with about 1.1 million in conventional public schools. (Charter schools are considered public schools too.) Fifteen of the 47, including the UFT school, opened this fall. The vast majority are elementary schools and many are small, with fewer than 200 pupils.
A CHOICE OR A DRAIN?
While much of the adamant opposition to charters has faded, conflicts remain over their performance and how they should be controlled and regulated. In many ways, these disputes come down to a battle over who should control education, what some have likened to a "power struggle."
Charter schools offer parents choice, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. But they also provide a counterweight to the so-called "educrats" and unions, often derided by Bloomberg and others. The lack of the union and of longtime school administrators holds particular appeal for many on the political right. It is no coincidence that one of the leading academic proponents of charters schools is the Goldwater Institute in Arizona -- named for the founder of the modern American conservative moment.
"I see charter schools as, first, a source of needed education options for disadvantaged kids otherwise stuck in failing district schools and unable to afford private schools; second, a source of important external pressure on traditional school systems (and private schools); and, third, a preview of things to come for public education as a whole," as the big bureaucracies lose much of their power said Chester Finn, a charter school advocate.
Charter schools also benefit from being contrasted with vouchers, which give parents money to spend on their children's education as they see fit. "Instead of pushing private school vouchers that funnel scarce dollars away from the public schools, we will support public school choice, including charter schools and magnet schools that meet the same high standards as other schools," said the Democratic Party platform for 2004.
"The educational establishment has been willing to allow charters in some state just to forestall vouchers," Clint Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice told the New York Times.
Those who remain opposed argue that charter schools drain energy and resources from the public schools, while only educating a tiny percentage of kids. As evidence, some point to Albany, where the public school system has lost more than 1,000 students and must spend about $10 million a year on charters.
Instead of moving to create a new parallel school system, "parents are interested in improving the schools that they have," said David Ernst, spokesman for the state Schools Board Association.
DO CHARTERS WORK?
Most New York City charter schools have existed for only a few years, if that, and so information about their performance remains sketchy.
In general, the results appear promising. For example, on eighth grade tests, where the city's regular public school students tend to stumble, charter school students did better, according to figures compiled by the Center for Charter School Excellence.
But nationally the statistics are murkier. The first study comparing students in regular schools with those in charters, released in August 2004, found that charter school students often did not perform as well as students in regular public schools. Finn called the results "dismayingly low" and called for those overseeing charters to be more demanding.
On the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress test, charter school students did not do as well as public school students. They did, however, narrow the gap between the two types of schools. This prompted a pro charter group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to say the scores showed "real progress for charter schools," while the American Federation of Teachers declared that charters "continue to lag behind regular public schools."
WHAT PARENTS WANT
To many New York City parents, such arguments are academic. They are dissatisfied with their local public school and want something better for their child but cannot afford private school.
The city's charter schools are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. Ninety percent of their students are black or Latino, and almost three quarters come from families poor enough that they qualify for a free school lunch. But the students are less likely than their regular school counterparts to need special education services, according to a state report.
Parents of students at the UFT school only have to look to I.S. 292, the public junior high school that resides in the same building as the charter school, to see what they are up against. Although a new principal has reportedly tried to turn the school around, in 2004, 28 percent of its eighth graders failed to meet even minimum state standards in reading.
And some charters offer services that go far beyond what public schools provide. At Harlem Day Charter, for example, students can stay at school until 5:30 p.m. at no charge. Some of that time is devoted to a program where artists supervise students in projects such as a felt mural showing how to count in Swahili. A fourth grade classroom boasts a bank of new computers, and a room set aside for parents offers computers as well as books that might be of interest. And the school takes advantage of a foundation program where students go to a local Barnes and Noble and get to spend $50 each on books of their own choosing.
Charter schools can adjust their programs to meet the wishes of parents in the community. And so many of the city charter schools stress academic basics, feature strict disciplinary codes and require uniforms. Some are single sex schools. Seth Andrew, who has applied to launch a charter school called Democracy Prep first looked at lots of other charter schools. He was particularly impressed by those that set "incredibly high expectations with plans for college for all kids" -- expectations that extend to behavior as well as academics.
To parents such an approach seems to have appeal. The charters select students by lottery and most, if not all, have more applicants than they can accept.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
Harlem Day receives slightly over $9,000 per student from the Department of Education, less than the public schools receive for each child. But, many say, money goes further in charter schools.
For one, new charter schools do not have to be unionized. "The big Kahuna is the union contract," said Peter Murphy, director of policy for the New York State Charter School Association. "The contract dictates things beyond wages and salaries" and takes away the school leader's ability to manage.
And charter school teachers may make less than their public school counterparts or work longer hours.
It seems clear that the UFT launched its charter school partly to rebut the contention that a UFT contract hampers education. Instead, union officials blame the school bureaucracy for excess costs. They say that administrative expenses take up 11 percent of most schools' budgets; at the UFT school, that figure is four percent.
But cost savings are only part of the story. Most charter schools raise money to supplement what they get from the city. Educating a student at the Harlem Day costs $3,400 to $4,000 more than the school receives from the city, said its director, Keith Meacham. But real estate developer Benjamin Lambert founded the school, and he and his brother Henry Lambert have helped it find space and money. And the Carl Icahn School in the South Bronx got a $3 million facility from the businessman for whom it is named.
Flexibility contributes to the success of charter schools, according to Paula Gavin, executive director of the city Center for Charter School Excellence. But, in addition, she said, the schools benefit from having a clear mission and a drive to fulfill that mission. They are small, Gavin said -- "not just class size, but the overall school is smaller. The size of the school allows individual attention." And, she said, charters must be accountable for what they do and do not do.
New York City and state do more than many other cities and states to promote charter schools. The city provides some schools with space in Department of Education buildings and recently launched a $250 million program to help other charters build their own homes. It has also established the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence in partnership with several foundations to help charter applicants and to assist existing schools.
Charter school advocates praise many things about New York state's charter law. But they do not like the cap, which limits the number of new charter schools in the entire state to 100, with 50 for the city. As of last month, some 42 schools were competing for the remaining 16 spots left for charters statewide.
The original rationale for the cap was that the state should be sure charter schools would work before launching too many of them. But now that charters have a track record, charter proponents say, the cap has outlived any use it might have onces had.
Bloomberg wants the state to eliminate the cap entirely and give him the authority to create charter schools without going to the state. Others call for doubling the cap to 200.
Supporters of charter schools would also like to see the government boost its allocation for each child in a charter school. "At the end of the day, they're all our children," said Mimi Corcoran, executive director of Beginning with Children Foundation, an early sponsor of charters.
But, while every child's future is important, won't spending money for charters still leave behind the vast majority of student who remain in regular public schools?
Supporters say no, contending that competition from charter schools may spur public schools to do better. Charters can, the argument goes, function as laboratories, developing techniques public schools can adopt. For example, said Corcoran, charters developed the idea of lead teachers, paying senior teachers extra money to remain in the classrooms rather than go into administration. Now that concept has been incorporated into the new union contract.
But many of the approaches used in charter schools, such as smaller class size, have already proved successful. Public schools simply don't have the money or the freedom to implement them.
"Our members envy the autonomy charter schools have," said Ernst of the school boards association. While the state frees charter school from many regulations, he said, it subjects public schools to requirements that are "costly, onerous, time consuming and not always in line with good educational process."
Similarly, while Bloomberg and Klein encourage charters to be independent, they have imposed a uniform curriculum on most regular public schools, increased standardized testing and, critics charged, micromanaged teachers and principals.'
Brian Ferguson, the principal of One World, is reluctant to set up a conflict between charters and more conventional public schools. "I'm sort of always leery to say that we're doing it and the public schools aren't doing it, because that's not the case," he said. "I think that we're both trying to get from each other what the best practices are for educating our children."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
New York City Center for Charter School Excellence
The city's public private partnership to promote charter schools
Apples to Apples: An Evaluation of Charter Schools Serving General Student Populations (Manhattan Institute)
The Charter School Dust-Up Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (Economic Policy Institute)
Charter Schools in New York: A New Era (Manhattan Institute)
Charter schools build on a decade of experimentation (Christian Science Monitor)
Charter school group takes New York deal (New Haven register)
Charter Schools Saturate City of Albany (New York Teacher)
Cloning a Charter School from Connecticut (Gotham Gazette)
A Guide To Enrollment And Success In Charter Schools (Kidsource Online)
Loophole 101: How Charter Schools Weaken the Teachers' Union (Village Voice)
Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal (New York Times)
Snapshot of New York City Charter Schools 2005 (in pdf format) (women's City Club of New York)
Teachers Union Gets Its Charter (New York Sun)