For apparently the first time since becoming governor, Gov. Kathy Hochul publicly said she was in favor of lifting the limit currently restricting the number of charter schools allowed in New York City during Tuesday night’s long-awaited NY1 gubernatorial debate.
“Should the cap on charter schools in New York City be lifted?” NY1 moderator Errol Louis asked the candidates during a lightning round. Without hesitation, the governor responded, “Yes.”
While the statewide cap on charters has yet to reach the 460-school limit, New York City’s smaller subset of 290 reached its threshold in 2020, leaving a handful of already-approved charters suspended in limbo unless state action is taken. Thousands of students are currently on waitlists to attend the city’s charter schools. It’s a complicated issue: State Democratic lawmakers and teachers unions are largely against changing the cap, arguing that these publicly funded and independently operated institutions divert fundamental resources from traditional public schools. Meanwhile, many parents and pro-charter advocates want more autonomy in choosing where and how their children attend class. They feel charters are the best tool to do so. As enrollment in New York City charter schools has increased around 9% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the pro-charter New York City Charter School Center, so have the number of calls to adjust or lift the cap.
While her Republican opponent Rep. Lee Zeldin has enthusiastically expressed his support of lifting the cap throughout his campaign, even penning an op-ed in the New York Post, Hochul had refrained from drawing any lines prior to Tuesday night’s first and only gubernatorial debate. When asked about her position by Politico in a recent interview, the governor said her administration has talked about the importance of giving parents more school options – one of the biggest arguments or people in favor of lifting the cap – but said her team wasn’t “prepared to talk about it right now.”
That time, it would seem, was Tuesday night – a mere two weeks before Zeldin and Hochul come head to head in a contest that’s grown increasingly close within the past month.
Hochul’s team did not respond to multiple requests for comment to clarify her stance.
The governor has been endorsed by the New York State United Teachers – a union that strongly opposes lifting the charter school cap. Hochul has faced criticism for not making her stance clear, and many believe it is because of this endorsement.
While testifying before lawmakers during the 2022 session, leaders from the New York State United Teachers said that while well intentioned, charter schools have become a financial burden on school districts. As enrollment and tuition has increased, state-mandated school district payments to charter schools increased by $1.2 billion, 76%, between the 2016-2017 and 2021-2022 school years in New York City.
Matthew Hamilton, press secretary for the New York State United Teachers, said the union believes systemic issues within the charter industry need to be addressed before the cap is lifted.
“We’ve been clear that all schools – including corporate charters – should be accountable and transparent in how they spend public tax dollars and should be fairly serving our students,” Hamilton said in a statement. “We’ll work with Gov. Hochul and lawmakers in the upcoming session to ensure our voice is heard when it comes to how charter laws need to be fixed to ensure they’re held to the same transparency and accountability standards that public schools are.”
New York City’s largest teachers union has also long opposed increasing the number of charter schools in the city.
“Hochul and the state Legislature have passed a landmark New York City small class size law and provided the funding to make it happen,” a United Federation of Teachers spokesperson said in a statement to City & State, referencing the recently approved legislation to lower city public school class sizes. “Until all current charter schools demonstrate real transparency in their funding and spending, and until all charters admit and keep a representative sample of city students, it’s too soon to talk about lifting the charter cap.”
The prospect of increasing the cap is not without precedent. The state Legislature raised New York City’s charter school cap by 50 in 2015 and clarified two years later that more than 20 “zombie charters” – charters belonging to closed schools – could reopen without counting toward the city’s cap. But those wins for charter schools occurred when Republicans controlled the state Senate and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was sympathetic to charters throughout his administration, helmed the state. Efforts to amend the cap have largely fizzled since.
In May, Republican state Sen. George Borrello proposed an amendment to legislation aimed at establishing an Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice to lift the charter school cap. That proposal was ultimately blocked by the Democrat-controlled state Senate that voted unanimously against it. “It is disappointing that despite Democrats’ continual rhetoric about prioritizing equity and opportunity, when presented with a chance to truly move the needle on those issues, they declined,” Borello said of the decision at the time. After Hochul said she was in favor of lifting the cap, Borello reaffirmed his commitment to move the bill forward in a statement to City & State.
But the governor’s words haven’t received a warm welcome among all state Republicans – not necessarily even those who supported Borello’s proposal. Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt accused the governor of trying to “score political points” days ahead of the gubernatorial election.
In June, Democratic state Sen. John Liu, chair of the New York City Education Committee, introduced legislation to provide final approval authority for approving all new charter schools to the Board of Regents. Several critics viewed this as a direct attack on the State University of New York’s authority to approve charter schools, which has been a major authorizer for years. After Hochul expressed her support for lifting the cap on charter schools, Liu said it may not be the right time to expand charter schools – even amid increasing enrollment.
“Perhaps the governor has new information to support her statement, but reaching the cap is not reason enough to change the charter threshold,” Liu wrote in a statement to City & State.
As a former New York City public school teacher and United Federation of Teachers member, Democratic Sen. Jabari Brisport also strongly opposed the governor’s position in a statement to City & State.
“New York is the wrong place to try selling destructive Republican strategies like charter schools. Whoever wins this election, we’re going to fight any attempt to prop up billionaires and corporations on the backs of children and teachers,” Brisport wrote.