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Charter school expansion unlikely in 2019

Shinichi Sugiyama

The cap on charter schools in New York is unlikely to be raised this year because of changing political dynamics in the Democrat-led New York State Legislature and opposition from the teachers union.

A 2015 law restricts how many new charter schools could open in New York City to 50, and the city reached that cap earlier this year. The limit under that law for the entire state is 460 schools. Proponents of charter schools would like to see the cap lifted, saying there are already long waiting lists of lower-income children who want to attend the schools. 

"Without a cap lift in Albany, today will be remembered as the day when progress in providing this city’s students the great public education that they deserve was arbitrarily halted," New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said in a statement in early March. "There is absolutely no reason to prevent new great public schools from opening -- the need is so great."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports raising the cap. His spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, told the New York Post in mid-April that the current cap is an "artificial" number.

Jolene DiBrango, vice president of the New York State United Teachers union, or NYSUT, said talking about charter school expansion is not the "right conversation" to be having right now, with most public schools facing budget votes in just a couple of weeks.

"Taxpayers will be going to the polls and voting on school budgets," DiBrango said. "And they know exactly where their tax dollars are being spent on public schools."

DiBrango said charter schools are less transparent and lack accountability.

"And we think the conversation should be on that," she said.

Charter schools are nonunion and operate under different rules than public schools, often with longer school days and fewer vacations.  

Statewide, there are 385 charter schools that are either operating or have permits to operate, according to the State Education Department, which keeps track. Although New York City is at its limit, the rest of the state is allowed up to 99 new charter schools under the current law.

The State Board of Regents and the State University of New York are the two main entities in the state authorized to approve charter schools.

In the past, Cuomo had political allies in the state Legislature who supported charter school expansion; Republicans and independent Democrats in the state Senate were backers. But Republicans lost heavily in the 2018 elections and are in the minority in the Senate. Seven of the nine members of the Independent Democratic Conference lost their seats in primaries.

Senate Democrats don’t favor expanding charter schools. And Democratic Assembly Leader Carl Heastie said the proposal is "not even on the radar screen" in his house.

"I don’t have any indication from the members that they want to lift the cap," Heastie said.

NYSUT’s DiBrango said the charter schools, many of which are publicly funded, drain resources from public schools. She said education aid was increased by more than $1 billion in the latest state budget, but it was only about half of the amount that the State Board of Regents recommended.  

"Our public schools are underfunded," DiBrango said.

Heastie agreed.

"The Assembly Democrats have always wanted to expend their energy and time on traditional public schools," he said.

Meaning that for now, the cap on charter schools stands.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.