When visitors come to The Renaissance Charter School in Queens, Principal Stacey Gauthier often insists they stop by the pre-K classroom.
Gauthier raves about the nurturing teacher. She marvels at the progress that students make in recognizing letters and numbers, and swears by the ease with which they transition to kindergarten.
Her program stands out for another reason: It’s in a charter school.
“This is really, truly a labor of love and a strong philosophical belief that pre-K is a wonderful thing,” Gauthier said.
Few charter schools have joined New York City’s efforts to make pre-K available to all of the city’s 4-year-olds. A recent legal victory for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, seemed poised to change that. In November, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools should have more freedom to run their pre-K programs without the city dictating curriculum or other requirements — a significant ideological win for the charter sector.
But the decision is unlikely to open the floodgates for New York City charter schools looking to start pre-K programs. Advocates say the lawsuit didn’t resolve more significant barriers that hold charter schools back, including a crunch for funding and space and, this year at least, a tight turnaround for getting programs running.
“Until we settle these larger financial issues, you’ll continue to see limited participation from charter schools,” said James Merriman, chief of the New York City Charter School Center. “It’s going to be very, very hard for them.”
Success took the city to court over a 241-page contract that the city requires to receive funding for pre-K. The document regulates everything from curriculum to field trips, and Success argued that was an overreach of the city’s authority.
The disagreement struck at one of the core philosophies of charter schools: that they should be free from the bureaucracies of school districts. In a press release touting the court decision, Success said their victory meant the city education department “cannot micromanage charter school pre-K programs.”
Soon, the city is expected to release a new request for proposals for charter schools interested in starting or expanding pre-K programs. Operators will have the chance to bid for those contracts — the first test of whether Success’s legal victory will help change the landscape of pre-K providers.
Observers don’t expect a sea change, however, citing familiar issues in the charter world that are left unresolved by the court battle: per-student funding, and finding space for classrooms.
“Unfortunately, the decision a lot of schools make is it’s too onerous to try to make happen,” said Ian Rowe, the chief executive officer of Public Prep, one of the dozen or so charters that offers pre-K.
While the city is required to provide charter schools with space in public buildings or help pay their rent, that rule doesn’t apply for pre-K. When Public Prep charter decided to launch its pre-K, Rowe said the school had to carve out space in their existing buildings. Public Prep serves about 80 pre-K students at its Bronx campuses, and hopes to start serving students at its Lower East Side location next year.
As it stands now, Rowe said he relies on private dollars to supplement Public Prep’s early childhood efforts, which he called “not sustainable.”
In kindergarten, charter operators can rely on receiving about $15,000 per student — but in pre-K, the figure falls closer to $10,000, according to the New York City Charter School Center. Meanwhile, class size and staffing requirements for pre-K means more money needs to be spent on salaries.
“For an age when one could argue you have the greatest opportunity for influencing student behavior and attitudes, you get the least amount of money,” Rowe said.
Another factor contributing to the budget squeeze: Under state law, pre-K is not considered a grade like kindergarten is, so schools don’t receive the same type of supports for children who come from poor families, have special needs, or may be learning English as a new language, said Gauthier, the Renaissance principal.
Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said funding for pre-K is determined “based on a detailed analysis around specific needs and operational expenses of each program.”
The education department “works with all our pre-K providers to ensure they have appropriate funding,” Cohen wrote in an email.
This year timing is also a factor. Though Success fought its pre-K battle for years, the network won’t be starting a program soon, saying there simply isn’t enough of a runway to get a program up and running for 2019-2020.
“Hundreds of New York City children missed out on pre-K education at Success Academy over the past three years because of this legal battle,” the network said in a press release. “However, it’s a victory for younger children and their families.”
Families are already researching their pre-K options, and applications are due in March. Yet the city hasn’t released its request for proposals for charter schools interested in pre-K, and it’s unclear when operators would get word that their program has been approved — creating a time crunch when it comes to recruiting families and hiring teachers.
Rowe said he is still determined to expand Public Prep’s pre-K classes, and hopes to apply as soon as the opportunity is available, unlike many other operators.
“I think most charters have given up,” this year, he said.
Cohen, the education department spokesman, said the city is “currently in the process” of drafting a new contract for funding for pre-Ks in charter schools and that officials are “continuing to analyze” the impact of the court decision. As for charters already operating pre-Ks, the city will “issue more guidance in the coming weeks” about what the court decision means for them, Cohen wrote.
With charter operators facing headwinds in the the state legislature, concerns about pre-K might get pushed to a back burner. Recent midterm elections ushered a new Democratic majority into office, and with it, a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools in New York. Advocates are likely to focus their efforts pushing for an increase in the cap on how many charter schools can operate in New York — just seven charters are left.
“People are worrying about those things,” Gauthier said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be jumping on the pre-K wagon.”