NY lawmakers slammed for blocking charter schools expansion

The chief state official who authorizes charter schools blasted Albany lawmakers for refusing to lift the cap to open more of the popular, alternative schools to accommodate pent-up parental demand in New York City.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s a big disconnect between elected officials and their constituents regarding charter schools,” said Joseph Belluck, chairman of the SUNY Charter School Committee.

“The parents in New York City want more charter schools. There are waiting lists in all of the existing charter schools. There aren’t enough seats.”

Belluck said he found the opposition to charter school expansion especially “incredible” because the schools were a “lifeline” to students and parents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Even while educating kids remotely, Belluck said there were examples of charter schools staff delivering food to homes of their students and helping families cope with deaths.

Belluck noted SUNY — one of New York’s two charter school authorizes along with the state Board of Regents — gave preliminary approval to 11 new charter schools to open in the city — but they can’t because the cap on licenses has been reached.

“There’s a lot of disappointment that we will not be able to meet the demand. It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. The parental demand is there. It’s irrefutable,” he said.

The cap is set at 460 statewide, with 290 set aside for New York City, which has already hit that limit.

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There are 92 unused charters left for the rest of the state but they can’t be used in the city — where the demand is — without a change in state law.

Instead, a scandal-weakened Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought a much more modest proposal: reauthorizing 20 so-called “zombie” licenses — those surrendered by schools that closed — to new charter school applicants.

But Democratic lawmakers who control the state Assembly and Senate — and aligned with the anti-charter teachers union — blocked the idea from appearing in the state budget.

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Michael Benedetto (D-Bronx) claimed “there’s no appetite” in the Democratic conference to expand the charter school sector’s footprint in New York.

The teachers’ union fiercely opposes charter schools, which are privately managed, publicly funded schools that have a longer school day and year and whose staffers are mostly non-union. Students in charter schools often outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools on the state’s standardized math and English exams.

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New York State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, the
Assembly Education Committee Chairman.
New York State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, the
Assembly Education Committee Chairman.
Photo/Hans Pennink

Benedetto did not dispute that union influence impacts the legislative resistance to charter school expansion.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say we consulted with the NYSUT and the UFT. They are a force in New York State politics,” said Benedetto, a retired Bronx school teacher and former union rep.

Benedetto also parroted criticism the union often spouts about charter schools — that their finances and policies are not audited or scrutinized as closely as traditional public schools are. He particularly questioned stricter disciplinary policies critics say lead to more student suspensions and push outs.

“Until we have a more level playing field, I don’t see lifting the charter school cap happening,” said Benedetto, who in 2019 introduced a series of bills aimed at limiting charter schools.

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