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Wayback Wednesday: And then there were charter schools

When Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference in the Bronx this week to celebrate the opening of 18 new charter schools this fall, the largest number ever in the city in one year, the news almost didn’t seem like news. After all, charter schools have opened in New York City every year during the administration of this mayor.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the city’s first-ever charters opened — just nine years ago, in fact. On Sept. 8, 1999, the New York Times reported that the city’s first two charters, Sisulu Children’s Academy and John A. Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem, were open for business:

A year ago, [the 1,000 families enrolling at the state’s three charter schools], many of them among the state’s poorest and most disadvantaged, would have had no choice but to go to traditional public schools. They switched because they are searching for new hope for their children, and because educators and politicians have given them faith that charter schools can cure everything that the stereotype says public schools lack: good teachers, higher test scores, discipline and safety.

It is far too soon to say whether charter schools, which are publicly financed but free of the Board of Education control and union rules, will work or be one more broken promise for families who feel they have been betrayed before.

But the dreams of parents and educators are just one face of the fledgling charter school movement. As Loretta’s new school, the Sisulu Children’s Academy, opens today, a day ahead of other New York City public schools, it is also the story of millions of taxpayer dollars going to a private start-up company with no track record.

Nine years later, the city has 78 charters with more opening every year. And yet the question posed back in 1999 about whether the new kind of schools would prove a salvation or “one more broken promise” — or somewhere in between — is still being asked. Certainly, however, the city’s first two charter schools were not the panacea their backers hoped: the state shuttered Reisenbach in 2004, when its original charter expired, and Sisulu barely escaped the ax at the time; it’s still open in Harlem.

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