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As charter approvals dwindle, state ed officials begin to ask why

Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation on childhood hunger and obesity with Angela Glover Blackwell and Bill Shore.
Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation on childhood hunger and obesity with Angela Glover Blackwell and Bill Shore.

Two New York City charter schools got a preliminary stamp of approval Monday from the state’s Board of Regents — but its overall number of charter approvals might reach its lowest number in years.

The Regents have approved only three new charter schools this year, though one application round remains in December. The state education department has approved at least five and as many as 13 in past years — marking a decline that has left Regents puzzled about why so many applications are being dismissed early in the process.

Meanwhile, SUNY, the state’s other authorizer of new charter schools, recently approved some of the schools the education department rejected in its last round, raising questions about the department’s standards.

“The ones that we said no to today, are we going to read about them now going across the street?” Chancellor Merryl Tisch asked on Monday, referring to SUNY. “You know, mommy says no, so daddy says yes?”

State education department officials, who vet the prospective schools and make recommendations to the Regents, had few answers to Tisch’s inquiries, prompting State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to ask her own staff for more clarity around which schools make the department’s cut.

The decline is not due to a lack of interest in opening charter schools in New York. This round, the state received 51 letters of intent, the first step in the charter approval process. Seventeen of those applicants were invited to submit a full application, and three made it to the Regents on Monday.

When the state rejected every applicant in its last charter approval round, in May, it prompted a round of speculation that the rejections were prompted by an increase in anti-charter-school sentiment among the Regents, some of whom were recently elected. That round also came after the Regents approved a Rochester charter school whose founder lied about his résumé, prompting calls for stricter standards.

Tisch continued to push back against the idea that the decisions were politically motivated on Monday.

“We ended up on the front page of a tabloid as being anti-charter, which is ridiculous. It’s not true,” Tisch said, of the May rejections. “What we are is pro good schools.”

The two New York City schools that did get the Regents’ preliminary green light Monday are the School in the Square Public Charter School and South Bronx Community Charter High School.

School in the Square promises Bronx students access to a physical “square” to deliberate about school governance and current events. South Bronx Community was inspired by the Obama administration’s initiative to improve the lives of young black and Hispanic men, My Brother’s Keeper, and its New York City counterpart, the Young Men’s Initiative.

The charter applications rejected in this round included a music-themed school for students from Washington Heights and Inwood and an internationally focused school in Manhattan.

Evan Meyers, the founder of School in the Square, had his application rejected six months ago. He said the additional time helped him focus his application.

“We thought we had understood the task and had met the requirements,” Meyers said. “We dusted ourselves off and made the decision to re-apply. We took it as an opportunity really rethink what we were saying.”

The Regents will take a final vote on School in the Square, South Bronx Community, and a Rochester charter school on Tuesday.

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