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Why New York’s charter movement has stalled — and what it needs to grow

Judging by the numbers, the charter movement is dead in New York.

The State Education Department approved just four new charter schools and SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute approved two this authorizing year, with its final round set to finish up soon. Meanwhile, New York City’s education department is trying to close four schools, and SUNY didn’t renew the charters of three. Another school closed due to low enrollment. Overall, that’s a decline.

This standstill was never legislated. Immense needs still exist. It’s not that there aren’t qualified planning teams, or communities desiring more options.

So what is up?

The state’s charter authorizers don’t have the funding they need to do their jobs, for one. As SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck said last year, as reported in Chalkbeat: “I will say this now: I am not scheduling a vote on a single charter, a new charter, until there are additional resources allocated to the Charter School Institute.”

At the State Education Department, it appears the same thing is happening. The need is evident: Its charter school office’s strategic plan from a few years ago estimated that it would need to more than double its staff by 2016. That office has also had a vacant director position for months, creating a key leadership gap. (Even when the job was filled, by generally bright folks, it paid poorly, so they eventually moved on to greener pastures — another lack of investment in an office with increasing responsibilities.)

The New York Charter School Incubator, a program of my nonprofit, Great School Choices, worked with teams who applied to the State Education Department this year who would have definitely gotten an interview in prior years. Some would have gotten approved. Instead, they universally got crickets.

I’ve been doing this in New York for almost a decade, so I know the standards. My incubator has helped to start 19 schools, and I’ve probably read another 30 to 40 charter applications.

Those standards are clearly different now. They’re not necessarily higher or better, but they are designed to turn more schools down.

This has costs. Very talented, committed, and passionate people who have devoted time, energy, and resources into applications are being left stranded. They reel back in that entrepreneurial energy and go back to teaching or their university jobs, or just leave the education arena altogether. Members of teams I worked with are now headed out of the state or into jobs that won’t take advantage of their creative ideas.

Communities that organized around schools are left sapped and demoralized, with the same challenges and educational gaps — in a state where less than one-third of students passed the state English tests last year, and just 5.7 percent of students with disabilities did.

It’s ironic that for a movement that is supposedly so well-funded, that was able to overcome so many objections and very formidable opponents to get off the ground, that we should find our boots stuck in the bureaucratic mud of Albany.

If we want good charter schools, we have to invest in good charter authorizing. We need to increase their funding in proportion to the increasing numbers of schools they oversee. And we need to invest in strong leadership, providing competitive salaries, to attract and keep committed and qualified leadership of these offices.

Unless we do, we will see fewer new schools, less oversight, more scandals, and declining educational options for communities. Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.