New York City is home to one of the most successful charter-school expansions in the U.S., from its initial handful of students in the fall of 2000 to 95,000 enrollees at the start of the 2015 school year. In some poor neighborhoods a quarter of all youngsters were attending charter schools by that time, with powerful results. For instance, Success Academy Harlem 4, a school with 97 percent minority children, scored No. 1 in the state in math achievement by fifth graders. Stanford University research shows that, on average, New York City charter students absorb five months of extra learning per year in math, and one extra month in reading, compared with counterpart children in conventional schools.
Yet when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014 with strong support from unionized teachers, he made it clear that he intended to clip the wings of philanthropically supported charters. He announced almost immediately that he was canceling a $210 million construction fund important to the schools, ending space-sharing with them, and intended to charge them rent (unlike other public schools that have their buildings provided by the city).
Charter allies responded to these threats. Early on, thousands of families marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate their concern. Advocates like the group Families for Excellent Schools, backed by the Broad, Walton, and Buck foundations and many individual donors, aired a series of advertisements spelling out the achievements of New York’s charters and urging legislators to oppose de Blasio’s crimps. Then on a freezing March 2014 day, 11,000 parents and children rallied in defense of charters in the state capital of Albany. (Donors helped pay for buses and such.) Telling them “Parents deserve a choice,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo promised, “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.” Nine days later, the state Senate passed a budget resolution containing several provisions that effectively annulled the new mayor’s squeeze on charter schools.