New York charter sector prepares for fight over limits

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A rally in support of charter schools in Albany, March 2014. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)
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Barely six months after New York City's charter school movement seemingly secured its future with sweeping legislation in Albany, advocates are gearing up for a new battle in the upcoming legislative session to eliminate or increase the cap on the number of new charters that can be created. 

Emboldened by their legislative successes last session, thank to help from Governor Andrew Cuomo, charter leaders and groups are in the early planning stages of launching a unified push to get the cap extended or eliminated as a line-item in this year's final budget. Sources said that meetings with legislators will likely begin later this fall  after the governor's race, and intensify throughout the winter. 

New York City will likely have just 17 slots for new charter schools by this fall, assuming that the charter proposals currently under review are approved, as is widely expected

Advocates say they're optimistic about their chances, which would all but guarantee rapid growth for the charter sector. 

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"Usually the conditions that lead to lifting a cap include long waitlists for charters, strong academic performance and many successful models that you want to replicate, support from political leaders and a strong, vocal advocacy infrastructure," said Nina Rees, the president and C.E.O. of the National Alliance for Charter Schools. "It is the right place to completely lift the cap," Rees said, adding her group, which has national influence, will help in the effort to extend the cap if local advocates ask. 

Advocates are expecting more support from Cuomo, who took up the charter cause in a very public way this year by siding with Success Academy leader Eva Moskowitz and other charter leaders in a fight with the city, and muted opposition from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was on the losing side of that fight. 

A spokeswoman for Cuomo referred Capital to a budget official, who noted that the statewide cap still allowed room for charter growth outside of New York City. 

"The breaks start to go on now in terms of ability to plan new charters," said James Merriman, C.E.O. of the New York City Charter School Center. He also said that, as the cap quickly approaches, "the cap starts to look like the Berlin Wall. It's simply an artificial barrier." 

Merriman believes New York City will have a strong case to make in removing its charter cap, which would ensure that the city's charters have both a dedicated funding stream for charter facilities and unlimited room to grow.

"It's fundamentally a crazy policy to put any limit on creating more successful public schools," he said.

New York City's charter cap was created under New York's original 1998 charter law allowing 200 schools statewide, and was extended by 114 schools during a 2010 fight in Albany over the cap. New York state and New York City have different caps; there are still 139 slots available for upstate charters.

Fresh off her victory in Albany against Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year, Success Academy C.E.O. Eva Moskowitz is likely to emerge as one of the leaders of the charter cap push. Noting the shrinking cap, Moskowitz applied to open 14 new charter schools by 2016 with the remaining charter slots, which will nearly double the size of her charter network. 

"[Moskowitz] is sitting on a goldmine, and would make a great advocate to make the case for lifting the cap," said Rees, whose group recently appointed Moskowitz to its "charter hall of fame." A spokeswoman for Moskowitz declined to comment. 

Devora Kaye, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said "as we work to support all children and educators, we look forward to collaborating with all community stakeholders." 

Opposition from the United Federation of Teachers and its affiliates is all but guaranteed, meaning a familiar series of rallies and counter-rallies will likely flood the Capitol in 2015.

"Given the charters' track record, the cap should be lowered," Michael Mulgrew, president of the U.F.T. said in a statement. "Raising the cap will drain more money from New York's traditional public schools, and the only ones to benefit will be a few people in the charter industry."

During the 2010 cap battle, union leaders and charter critics worked in more regulations on how many special needs students and English language learners charters would have to admit, by way of compromise. Charter advocates say more regulations in that vein will be likely to pass legislation this time around. 

And while the 2010 charter cap fight was lengthy and contentious, the national picture is encouraging for the local charter sector, as many states have successfully eliminated their caps.  According to research from the National Alliance, the majority of states with unlimited charters originally had caps. Some states, like Colorado and Maine, have charter laws with sunset provisions that will eventually eradicate the caps the laws were passed along with. Others, like Iowa, Louisiana and Tennessee lifted their caps in order to be eligible to receive federal Race to the Top funding.