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Education Opinion

What a Difference Charter Caps Make....

By Sara Mead — March 19, 2014 2 min read

Charter supporters nationally are focusing on New York City, where recently-elected Mayor deBlasio seems to be making good on campaign promises to oppose charter co-locations and charge charter schools rent (never mind charter parents are city taxpayers, too...)--a potentially a significant blow to the city’s charter sector that has garned significant national criticism for the Mayor. While lots of smart folks have written on this, I can’t help be struck between the contrast between what’s going on in New York right now--and the consternation among charter supporters leading up to last year’s election there--and the current D.C. Mayor’s race.

A hotly contested Democratic Mayoral primary is currently underway in D.C., and with the entry of independent councilman David Catania into the race, the November election may well also be competitive. While the identify of the next Mayor clearly has major implications for the city’s education system--including both DCPS and charters--none of the frontrunning candidates in D.C. have demagouged charter schools the way deBlasio did in his campaign, nor do D.C. operators view the election with the anxiety we saw in New York a year ago. Even candidates who have not historically been viewed as particularly friendly to charters have been talking about how to better integrate charters and DCPS to meet the needs of kids and families--not getting rid of charters. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that charter schools are a much bigger piece of the public education landscape in D.C.--where they account for more than 40 percent of students--than they are in New York. That difference again has a variety of causes, but a major one is the cap that existed on charters in New York before 2010, limiting the number of charters that could be created even in the face of high parent demand and evidence that New York charters outperformed their peers. While the state lifted the cap in 2010--allowing some high-performing charters to grow--its legacy has meant the New York charter sector is relatively small, and made it possible for deBlasio to paint charters as a marginal, niche phenomenon that drains resoruces from the majority of the city’s schools--in contrast to the central part of the public school ecosystem that charters are in places like D.C. Even D.C. leaders who are skeptical of charter schools know that a lot of their constiuents’ children and grandchildren attend charters--or that they hope to send their kids to charter schools someday--and that makes a difference in the political dynamic around chartering.

Obviously, market share isn’t everything: Quality of charter school options is even more important, and D.C. has made major strides on this front over the past five years--closing low-performing schools, growing high-performing seats to replace them, and raising the bar for all charters. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of that. But the contrast between New York and D.C. should also remind us that limits on charter growth can create situations that endanger even high-performing charters--and we shouldn’t ignore that these barriers continue to exist in many places where there is high unmet parent demand.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.