The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York City charters leave thousands of seats unfilled despite exploding demand, study finds

Placeholder while article actions load

New York City’s charter schools are leaving thousands of seats unfilled each year despite ballooning demand and long waiting lists, according to an analysis of public data to be released Friday.

The decision not to fill seats that are left vacant by departing students deprives other deserving students of places in the schools, the report argues. It also means that charter schools can appear to be improving, according to proficiency rates on standardized tests, even as the absolute number of children scoring proficient declines each year, it says.

The report, entitled “No Seat Left Behind” and issued by the Harlem-based parent advocacy group Democracy Builders, calls on charter schools to begin voluntarily “backfilling” their empty seats — or admitting new students to replace those who leave.

[Charter schools still a D.C. hot-button issue]

Traditional public schools are required to fill empty seats, often taking in children who are English language learners, or homeless or poor. Some charter schools also backfill, but many do not, allowing new students to enroll only at certain entry points — such as kindergarten, fifth or sixth grade, and ninth grade.

“We love to say charter schools are public schools,” said Princess Lyles, executive director of Democracy Builders. “We have to be who we say are. If we want to proclaim that we are public schools, then we have to do some of the things that traditional public schools have to do.”

In New York City, charter schools lose an average of between 6 and 11 percent of students annually, Democracy Builders found. Since many schools do not replace those students, more than 2,500 seats are left empty in grades 3 through 8 alone, according to the report.

“One seat left open is one too many,” Lyles said, arguing that the 50,000 children on wait lists deserve as much access as possible to the city’s charter schools. The city’s charter schools enroll about 80,000 children.

Charter school critics have long contended that charters’ refusal to backfill has given them an unfair leg up in comparisons with traditional schools because a steady influx of new students — who are often behind grade level — can hurt math and reading proficiency rates.

The new report echoes that criticism but was written by charter school advocates. The founder of Democracy Builders is Seth Andrew, who also founded one of the city’s most vaunted charter school networks, Democracy Prep (which backfills its seats).

[Separating fact from fiction in 21 claims about charter schools]

The report includes interactive charts showing proficiency rates and attrition in grades three through eight for charter and traditional schools.

The data show that attrition has left a considerable number of vacancies at some of the most acclaimed charter schools in the city, such as Success Academy, which is known for producing high test scores even though it primarily enrolls poor children.

Between 2006 and 2014, the proportion of students at Success Academy who scored proficient in math ranged from 94 percent in third grade to 97 percent in eighth grade, according to the report.

But the number of test-takers declined with each passing year, as students departed, and the number of proficient students fell from 88 students in third grade to 31 students in eighth.

By contrast, many traditional schools see their numbers increase in later grades. In District 7, for example, between 2006 and 2014 the average number of test-takers increased from 77 to 109 between third and eighth grade, while proficiency fell from 30 to 28 percent.

“Without backfilling, a school can maintain the illusion of success,” Lyles and her Democracy Builders colleague Dan Clark wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in February. The organization is supporting a bill before the New York City council that would require schools to make public far more information about student attrition and backfilling.

In a recent WNYC radio interview, Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz called backfilling a “long, complicated debate” and said her schools now accept new students through fourth grade. Accepting older children who were not prepared academically for Success Academy’s rigors would be detrimental to other students, she said.

“It’s not really fair for the seventh grader or high school student to have to be educated with a child who’s reading at a second or third grade level,” she said, according to a report in Chalkbeat New York.

The report is one sign that backfilling has emerged as a key issue dividing charter advocates around the nation. It is a question that has taken on new urgency particularly in cities where charter schools enroll a substantial share of students and are coming under pressure to reexamine not only their enrollment policies, but also their suspension and expulsion practices and their services for special-needs students.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the conservative Fordham Institute think tank, wrote in a recent blog post that decisions about such policies should be left to individual schools.

“That’s the whole point of charter schools: to allow educators to escape the Gordian knot of regulations and requirements that have imprisoned traditional public schools,” he wrote. “When we force charter schools to backfill, or adopt uniform discipline policies, or mimic district schools’ approach to special education, we turn them into the very things they were intended to replace.”