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Charter sector says 50,000 children were turned away this year

Students who were turned away from city charter schools this year could fill some of the city’s grandest landmarks, according to the New York City Charter School Center’s final tally of charter school applications.

According to the center, more than 69,000 students applied for 18,600 seats at the city’s soon-to-be 183 charter schools for next year. After filling their seats in lotteries last month, the schools had to turn away more than 50,000 students, the center said today, noting that this year’s wait lists contain more students than Yankees Stadium or the Great Lawn in Central Park could hold.

The center held a press conference today on the steps of City Hall to tout the numbers, which reflected a slight increase in the number of families applying to charter schools since last year as 24 new schools prepare to open this fall.

Citywide, the number of students applying to charter schools is rising less quickly than the number of seats in charter schools, so the odds of admission actually rose this year. But that wasn’t true at every school.

“Our demand is always high, but this year it’s higher than ever before,” said Shubert Jacobs, principal of Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, which he said had received 1,500 applications for 50 seats. The mother of two children at the school, Nadine Graham, appeared at the press conference and said her family was “truly fortunate” to have won spots in the school’s lottery.

Charter school wait lists are both politically significant and hard to pin down. The charter sector points to the size of wait lists as evidence that the public wants more charter schools. But charter school advocates in other districts have come under fire for counting students who apply to multiple schools twice on districtwide wait lists.

The city’s numbers count individual students, not applications (there were 181,600 of them, according to the center, mostly submitted online). But even so, because applicants are automatically added to wait lists if they are not selected in schools’ lotteries, it is unclear how many students on wait lists are unhappy with the schools they end up attending.

The tally announcement came days after several Democratic candidates for mayor said at the teachers union’s spring conference that they would not support raising the limit on the number of charter schools that can operate. The limit was last lifted in 2010 after a bruising legislative battle and now stands at 214 for New York City, which this fall will have 183 charter schools in operation.

Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said the latest application numbers showed that the candidates are out of touch with families in the city want.

“While some want to turn back the clock to when New York had only a handful of public charter schools, these record application numbers show parents overwhelmingly demand them,” Sternberg said. “We believe in giving them those choices.”

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, which recently launched an ad campaign aimed at building support for charter schools, said the press conference highlighted three independent charter schools in part because mayoral candidates have aimed their fiercest criticism at networks that manage multiple charter schools.

In addition to criticizing charter schools, leading Democratic candidates have also taken aim recently at high-stakes testing and policies that curb teachers’ creativity in the classroom.

In his comments, Jacobs touted his school’s low student attrition rate, the fact that it allows teachers to write their own lessons, and its emphasis on measures of student learning other than state test scores.