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New York's Charter School Revolution Hits a Milestone

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New York's Charter School Revolution Hits a Milestone

The Wall Street Journal October 5, 2016
Urban PolicyEducationNYC

‘The current mayor has succeeded in slowing the growth to its lowest level since its inception.’

Sorry, but I have some bad news for opponents of school choice. The Success Academy public charter-school network, which is based in New York City, marked its 10th anniversary this year and shows no signs of slowing down.

The first school opened in Harlem on Aug. 20, 2006. The 165 kindergartners and first-graders, chosen by lottery, shared a building with a traditional public school. Now there are 41 Success schools, serving 14,000 children. The waiting list has nearly doubled in the past three years to about 17,000, and over the next decade the plan is to expand to 100 schools serving 50,000 children, which would rival the size of the Atlanta and Boston public-school districts.

The academic results of the charter schools probably best explain this phenomenal demand for more seats. Last year, Success students scored in the top 1% in math and the top 3% in reading among all schools in New York state. The math exam pass rate of 72% among Success students with disabilities was more than double the city’s pass rate among students without disabilities.

Success charters, which enroll a disproportionate number of low-income black and Hispanic students, also have made huge strides toward closing the racial achievement gap. With 1.1 million students, New York City’s public-school system is by far  the nation’s largest, and around 75% of its black and Hispanic charges perform below grade level. That’s not the case at Success Academy. On the most-recent state tests, 93% of black students and 95% of Hispanic students at Success schools passed the math exam, versus just 20% of black students and 24% of Hispanic students citywide. The citywide passage rate on the English test was 27% for black and Hispanic students, but for their Success counterparts it was 81% and 80%.

Opponents of charter schools claim that the superior outcomes result from skimming the best public-school students from the most-committed families. Yet numerous studies that control for any self-selection bias—by comparing students who attended charters only with those who entered the lottery but didn’t win a spot—regularly find that charter students have higher test scores and are more likely to attend and complete college.

There are other successful charter networks in New York, including KIPP and Democracy Prep. But Success Academy and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, have become the face of the choice movement. Ms. Moskowitz told me in an interview this week that she’s proud of the test scores but that there’s more to learning than performing well on an exam. “It’s the mathematical reasoning. It’s the scientific inquiry. It’s the level of our childrens’ debating skills. It’s the art and music and sports and chess that are being produced at a really high level,” she said.

I first interviewed Ms. Moskowitz in 2003, when she was a New York City Council member who headed the education committee. She had decided to hold hearings on the teachers-union contracts that govern public schools in the Big Apple. The union was furious and tried to stop her, even though the council had no power to change any work rules. Ms. Moskowitz held the hearings anyway, but many of the teachers, principals and other witnesses called to testify were so fearful of union retribution that they insisted on having their voices disguised and their names withheld. What started as an education hearing came to resemble a Mob trial.

When I asked Ms. Moskowitz this week what’s changed in terms of her challenges over the past decade, she pointed to the political environment. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a reform-oriented independent who served from 2002 to 2013, robust school choice was not only supported but encouraged. By contrast, his successor, progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio, has aligned himself with organized labor—which opposes charter schools because most are exempt from the collective-bargaining agreements that allow teachers unions to exert so much control over public education.

“The current mayor has succeeded in slowing the growth to its lowest level since its inception,” said Ms. Moskowitz. “On average, during the [second half] of the Bloomberg administration, total enrollment growth was around 26%. In the last two years that has slowed considerably to about 11%.” The citywide charter school waiting list today is about 45,000 students.

Ms. Moskowitz told me she was disappointed to learn that civil-rights groups like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are now opposed to charter schools. “We see reimagining public education as the leading civil-rights issue of our time. We deeply believe that all children’s lives matter,” she said. “If you are black or Latino, you are more likely to go to a failing school than if you are white and affluent. That strikes me as profoundly unjust and in need of urgent action.”

Here’s to another 10 years of Success Academy success.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.