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As it faces uncertain future, city’s charter sector sharing lessons

A leading resource for New York City charter schools is preparing to lend its expertise out to school operators across the country.

The New York City Charter School Center’s expansion of an existing program, “Replicating Quality Schools,” comes as the city’s charter sector faces an uncertain future. With Mayor Bloomberg, a longstanding charter supporter, leaving office at the end of the year, it is likely that the next mayor will not make it as easy for charter schools to open in public space, a cost-saving measure that has allowed the charter sector to flourish over the last decade.

Elsewhere in the country, the outlook for the publicly financed but privately managed schools is more favorable. So the charter center announced this week that it plans to help charter operators set up new schools in other cities, using a 2011 program for city charter schools that aimed to duplicate as a blueprint.

The charter center is bringing on Jim Ford, a consultant who has assisted charter schools in the past, to run the new program, which will focus on the challenges that charter operators face as they begin to turn stand-alone schools into the foundations of charter networks. Operators in that position must contend with many new questions, including how to divide responsibilities between schools and central offices and how to allow schools to customize their programs while remaining faithful to the original model.

The center will run the eight-week program, which the Dell Foundation is funding, in four cities over the next three years where charter advocates request assistance. The first destination is New Orleans, where three-quarters of students already attend charter schools, giving it the highest charter school enrollment density of any district in the country.

Despite the large number of charter schools in New Orleans already, there remains an appetite for more that use practices that have been successful already, according to James Merriman, the charter center’s CEO.

“I think there’s a certain irony here,” he said. “At a time where some of [New York City’s] mayoral candidates are saying, ‘Let’s slow down, let’s not expand the charter sector,’ what we’re seeing in other cities is a move to replicate what’s gone on in New York and build high-quality charter seats.”

At a panel discussion hosted by the Manhattan Institute on Tuesday, Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams said not many people want to start charter schools in the city right now. Even other parts of New York State seem to be more appealing for charter school incubation. Just this week, a foundation pledged to give $1 million help establish more charter schools in Rochester.

Merriman said the national program did not signal a reduction in the charter center’s committment to operate in New York City. In fact, he said, the replication program could soon be reprised here.

“I don’t know if it will be one of the four cities that we do, but we intend to offer the program again here in the next year or so,” Merriman said.

Still, he said, efforts to develop new charter schools in New York City face more of an uphill battle than they might in other districts. “It’s hard to talk people into thinking of New York as a place to come when you see other cities being much more willing,” he said.