Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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New York City Office of Charter Schools

Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)

First year of operation Number of staff Total number of schools Number of students Total number of school closures
1998 5 23 4,494 1

New York State Charter Law:

In a state where charter schools are widely opposed by unions, several policymakers, and districts, especially in smaller cities and towns where resources are scarce, New York City (NYC) has had great success with charter schools. This success is due in part to tangible support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, both reformminded charter advocates who have instituted policies to support charter schools throughout the city. While state legislators were bemoaning the financial drain of charters upon their smaller districts, NYC allocated $250 million in capital and has made available district facilities for charter operators to expand where real estate prices would otherwise be prohibitive.

Despite a 2006 legislative vote not to lift the cap on charters, staff members in the NYC Office of Charter Schools remain optimistic. To former executive director Mashea Ashton, "It's not a matter of if, but when" the statewide cap will be lifted, so the office continues to refine its staff, build its processes, and accept applications in preparation for the day when the city may grant new charters.

Meanwhile the city has moved forward with the cap in place by creating other public charterlike schools. In June 2006, Mayor Bloomberg announced the creation of 331 "empowerment schools" that will operate independently of the district much the way charter schools do. In exchange for greater financial and programmatic independence, schools will be held to specific standards for student achievement, fiscal responsibility, and school safety.

The NYC office's mission, in Ashton's words, is to "prove the possible," to foster innovation by protecting schools from burdensome regulation and by highlighting the schools' success with students who have not thrived in the traditional system. The aim is to authorize schools that succeed with at-risk populations to show that it can be done and how it might be replicated. Aware that the district may not always be charter- friendly, NYC charter office staff seek a record of performance that will speak louder than political objections to charter schools, creating a powerful image of success to which the traditional system will be forced to pay attention.

NYC authorizing staff report directly to Garth Harries, CEO of the Office of New Schools, where the charter schools office is housed. Chancellor Klein receives all staff recommendations regarding charter approval, renewal, and revocation, and, in turn, passes on his recommendation to the State Education Department.

The New York State Board of Regents, overseeing all education activities in the state, makes final chartering decisions. Despite this manytiered structure, charter school leaders and the chancellor view the NYC charter schools staff as the real decision-makers regarding charter schools in the city.

Though NYC has had charter schools since 1998, the Office of Charter Schools was created as a distinct entity within the office of New Schools in 2004 under Chancellor Klein. This move has significantly improved operations. developing distinct staff positions, for example, each clearly defined by area of expertise, allows charter schools one point of direct contact. Schools appreciate being able to call the same person every time with questions regarding a particular issue. In the past when staffing in the Office of Charter Schools was not as clearly defined, schools reported getting passed along from person to person before finally receiving an answer.

Office capacity is stretched, with five full-time staff members in 2006 overseeing 31 of their own schools and fiscal operations at all 58 charter schools in the city, irrespective of who authorized them. Fortunately, staff members can draw on their colleagues' expertise in the Office of New Schools, and they are able to use other divisions of the department to provide a range of services to charter schools, such as assistance with transportation and other operations issues, technical support, and access to district facilities. They also rely a great deal on the Center for Charter School Excellence (CCSE), an independent nonprofit organization that focuses entirely upon charter support and advocacy. The charter schools staff members often use CCSE space for meetings, school gatherings, and trainings, and they work in partnership with the center to foster communication among school leaders and provide planning and technical support. This unique and valuable relationship— CCSE helped design the improved staff structure now in place—allows the NYC office to focus on authorizing while feeling confident that CCSE is providing its charter schools the type of support and advocacy that augments the department's mission.

The NYC office is not actively involved in recruiting, but relies on the CCSE to encourage quality charter operators that meet the NYC charter office's standards to apply. The highprofile nature of charter schools in NYC, due to the chancellor and the mayor's support but also to CCSE's own work, has made recruiting easy. In 2006, nearly 100 schools were prepared or preparing to submit proposals as soon as the cap is lifted.

All charter schools authorized by the NYC Office of Charter Schools must develop performance goals based on absolute measures of student performance on state exams, value-added measures (an assessment model that measures students' academic growth), and comparison to similar district schools. Schools also are required to meet AYP and maintain high graduation rates. Schools also are welcome to include school-specific academic or nonacademic goals in their contract and may revise their goals at the end of their first year.

Schools are required to submit annual reports to the NYC Office of Charter Schools and to the state education department. The reports must contain detailed information on academic performance, student attendance and enrollment, and fiscal performance. The Office of Charter Schools also requires schools to submit quarterly reports of assets and liabilities, cash flow statements, and board minutes. Internally, the office staff organizes this information into an "accountability tracker," an Excel spreadsheet containing data on what required information schools have or have not submitted. Most of these documents are collected in person during staff site visits to the schools, which the schools appreciate because of the face-to-face contact with a member of the Office of Charter Schools staff. These frequent visits also create a positive relationship with their schools.

The Office of New Schools and the Office of Charter Schools within it are a high priority for the chancellor and so have received much greater funding since he took office than in the past. Serving in a district office, these staff members also perceive all NYC schoolchildren as "their kids," and this awareness informs all their decisions about charter approval, oversight, renewal, and closure.

The great opposition to charters elsewhere in the state has made NYC a highly visible focal point for many legislators and the public. However, as the NYC charter office applies rigorous policies consistently to shut down unsuccessful charter schools and to open a greater number of high-achieving, replicable schools, it may help to make the charter school effort in NYC a successful one.

Signs of Success: New York City Office of Charter Schools
  • In 2005, NYC public charter schools outpaced traditional public schools on the state English language arts (ELA) exam, achieving 56 percent proficiency compared to 48 percent proficiency achieved by students at traditional public schools located in the same district as charter schools.

  • In 2005, a higher proportion of NYC charter school students met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading and math compared to their district public school counterparts.28

  • In 2002–03, eighth-grade students in NYC charter schools performed better than their district peers on the state's ELA test. Students with disabilities in NYC charter schools performed at comparable levels to students with disabilities in traditional district schools. While charter school students' performance was lower than students from district schools in fourth-grade English and mathematics and in eighth-grade mathematics, the charter school students made greater gains in these areas than students from district schools in 2002–03.29

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009