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The Charter-School Windfall for Public Schools

Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2014

By Eva Moskowitz

Upon his re-election in 2006, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein offered the free use of underutilized school facilities to a bumper crop of charter schools opening that year—including my first. Fueled by this policy, charter-school enrollment in the city grew from 11,000 to almost 70,000 by the end of Mr. Bloomberg’s second term in 2013, and my one school grew to 22.

As the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools—free public schools open to all children in New York City through a random lottery—I’ve seen firsthand how allowing “co-location” with district schools has helped charter schools and their students thrive. Success Academy currently has 32 schools spread across the Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan and Queens boroughs and recently was granted approval from our chartering authority, the State University of New York, to open 14 more.

Three-quarters of our students are poor enough to receive subsidized lunch, and 94% are children of color. Our students have excelled. They not only rank in the top 1% in math and top 3% in English among all state schools, but they take top honors in national debate and chess championships. They compete in ballroom dancing, soccer and track and field.

Critics charge, however, that the academic successes posted by our schools and other charters result from cherry-picking the best students—and that since the harder-to-educate students are dumped in district schools, any academic gains by charters are offset by losses in district schools.

It is now possible to evaluate that claim.

New York City has 32 community school districts. The availability of free facilities in some of them has spurred rapid charter-school growth, while in others, the absence of such facilities has thwarted it. As a result, charter enrollment varies widely, from nearly half of students in the Central Harlem district to none at all in other districts.

This divergence, much like Germany’s division after World War II into a free-market West and a Communist East, has created perfect conditions for a real-world experiment. We can examine the 16 districts where charter school enrollment is highest (charter-rich districts) and the 16 districts where it is lowest (charter-light districts) and see how their relative rankings, based on their results on statewide English and math proficiency exams, changed between 2006 and 2014.

Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one. The district that jumped furthest, rocketing up 11 spots between 2006 and 2014, was District 5 in Central Harlem, which has the city’s highest charter-school enrollment (43%).

And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings, and not one rose. For example, District 12 in the Bronx, which in 2006 ranked higher than Central Harlem, now ranks 13 spots lower. District 29 in Queens, which in 2006 ranked 15 spots higher than Central Harlem and has fewer poor students, now ranks lower.

Average charter-school enrollment was 20% for those districts that rose in the rankings and 6% in those districts that fell.

Charter-school gains do not come at the expense of district schools. Actually, the opposite is true. The district schools in charter-rich districts improved in response to the competition. As judged solely by district-school results, 11 of the 16 charter-rich districts moved up in the rankings.

The results are clear: Parent choice and school competition improve educational opportunities for children in New York City. Yet the policy that brought us to this point—letting charters use underutilized school facilities—is under attack by charter-school opponents.

Opponents claim that co-location of charter and district schools in the same building hurts the district schools. False. In fact, it makes them better, as improved overall test scores in charter-rich districts have shown.

Opponents claim that co-location causes crowding in public-school facilities. False. Charter-school students aren’t grown in test tubes or rocketed from the planet Krypton. They are local children who would be occupying seats in public-school buildings regardless. By drawing students into underutilized facilities, charters even out enrollment and ease overcrowding.

Opponents claim that communities don’t want co-location. False. While the teachers union sometimes scares district parents into opposing co-locations with false allegations of harm, most parents want more options for their kids. Witness the 43% of families sending their children to charter schools in Harlem and the tens of thousands of kids on charter-school wait lists.

Opponents claim that families in co-located district schools feel like second-class citizens. Maybe so—but that’s no reason to oppose co-location. District-school parents should be asking questions like why their kids aren’t learning to read, why their children’s teachers don’t answer phone calls, and why their facilities are shabby despite huge budgets for construction and maintenance. These types of questions will improve district schools.

These false critiques are about one thing only: opponents of charters schools recognizing that co-location turbocharges charter-school growth.

Which is precisely why it should continue.

Ms. Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools.