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Walcott: Charter schools shouldn't need to pay to fill their seats

Chancellor Dennis Walcott criticized a charter network’s brief campaign to boost enrollment using cash incentives, arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to do much recruitment at all.

“[I] think it was unnecessary,” said Walcott, referring to a $200 incentive offered by Girls Prep to families that referred new students to some of the network’s schools. Hours after GothamSchools reported about the offer last week, the schools’ management network, Public Prep, canceled the program and yanked a notice about the offer from its website.

“Charters, quite frankly, if they’re worth their salt, have people knocking down their door,” Walcott told reporters after he appeared on a panel of leaders in public education at NBC’s Education Nation summit. “So there’s no need for them to do that.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for charter schools to spend money on marketing to recruit students, and most schools allocate at least a small sum in their budget to the effort. Success Academy, for instance, spent close to $1 million in 2011 on subway advertisements and glossy mailers in areas where new schools were opening. Even district schools — high schools, in particular — have been known to hire marketing and public relations consultants to elevate their profile to parents and students during their intense search for a high school.

At Girls Prep on the Lower East Side, which was looking to fill eight vacancies between its elementary and middle schools, there were additional enrollment challenges, school officials said. Being an all-girls school, it has a smaller pool of students to recruit from. And it’s especially hard to attract families in a fluid marketplace of a district where parents can select which elementary schools to send their children to. Most districts assign students to schools based on where they live.

But the incentivized nature of Girls Prep’s short-lived strategy seemed to strike a nerve, in part because critics suggested that it challenged the notion that the growth of the city’s charter schools are largely based on demand for more seats. (Officials noted that the vacancies were concentrated in certain grades, and that 182-student wait list were for grades at capacity. They said that the wait list for its Bronx charter school hovered around 300).

The concern extended to Walcott’s Department of Education, which reached out to Public Prep after learning about the recruiting strategy on Friday. Walcott said that although his authority over how charter schools operate is limited, he can still wield some influence over the sector’s practices.

“I guess the bully pulpit of what I just said is sending a signal out that that shouldn’t be done at all,” Walcott said.

On Monday, Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe acknowledged Walcott’s comments about the program. “We agree,” he said, “which is why we took it down.”

Walcott’s comments come on the day before Public Prep schools join other charter schools for a rally being organized by several large charter management organizations. The rally, which organizers said they hope will exceed 10,000, is meant to send a message to mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, who has criticized the salaries of people running the CMOs and threatened to charge rents to some schools in city-owned buildings.

But the rally has also turned off many in the charter sector who see it as being the wrong approach to seeking influence with de Blasio, who leads in the polls by as many as 50 points against Republican Joe Lhota. Few independent charter schools are participating and the the city’s main charter school advocacy organization, the New York City Charter Center, is not participating in it.

Last week, Walcott defended the role that the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academies, was playing in the rally. The 20-school network is closing schools for the duration of the rally to encourage its parents and students to attend.

“Success has done a masterful job at educating their students,” Walcott said last week, citing top results by the network’s schools on the 2013 state tests. “I have confidence that they balance both the educational needs of their students as well as the role of civic engagement.”

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