Advocacy Group: Charters Under Pressure to Fill Empty Seats


Members of a charter school advocacy group, the Democracy Builders, rallied outside New York City’s City Hall as they touted their report claiming that privately-operated, publicly-funded learning institutions are not playing fair. The report says, according to Will Bredderman of Observer/News, that charter schools have not filled the seats left vacant by students who leave during the year.

The organization claims it has used testing statistics from the city Department of Education website to show that 2,500 students left 150 charters between 2013 and 2015. During that time, the schools did not replace the seats of the students who left with wait listed students, numbering almost 50,000.

Although charter school students perform at a higher level than students in public schools on standardized tests, many teachers unions and advocates have criticized the recruiting and instruction methods used in the charter school setting.

“We’re saying, ‘if students are leaving, you should be held to put students in those spots,’” said Princess Lyles, executive director of Democracy Builders. “If charters chose to voluntarily backfill empty seats in K through 12, they would expand choice and voice for thousands of families that are desperate for the type of education these high-quality schools provide without new legislation or regulation.”

Lyles did, however, call for passage of a bill, which would be sponsored by the pro-teachers union Progressive Council, to require charter schools to make public information concerning their attrition rates. Charter school critics say the reason charter students outperform their public school peers on standardized tests is because the schools push out students who do not perform well, and charters do not replace them with new students.

The report states that the Department of Education ascribes excessive weight to a school’s “percent proficiency”, or the ratio of students performing well as it relates to the performance of the entire student body.  This creates a reluctance on the part of charter schools to fill seats emptied during the school year.

The Manhattan Institutes found that the most troubled students are likely to leave in the middle of the year – immigrant children, special needs children, and the homeless.

This, says Lyles, is what makes charter schools look so much better than public schools, and adds:

“What happens is you change the denominator. And so the number of proficient students remains the same, but the total number of students goes down. And so the proficiency rate goes up.”

Democracy Builders was founded by Seth Andrew, who is also founder of the Democracy Prep chain of charter schools. Lyles says the group is pro-charter, but is attempting to assist in establishing better regulation in the industry.

The report is titled “No Seat Left Behind” and, according to The Washington Post, the main theme is that one seat left open at any charter school is one too many. As of now, New York City’s charter schools enroll about 80,000 students. Democracy Builders found that charters lose an average of 6% to 11% of students each year. The call is for charter schools to begin “backfilling” empty seats, meaning admitting students to replace those who leave.

However, says Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, she does not take new students in the upper grades because they wold not be prepared for the rigorous curriculum, writes Aaron Short for The New York Post.

“Accepting more students in higher grades would just force us to admit fewer in the lower grades,” she said in a statement.

If there are empty seats in traditional public schools, those vacancies are required to be filled and often go to English language learners, the homeless, or the poor. The Washington Post’s Emma Brown states that many charter schools allow new student enrollment at certain points, like kindergarten, fifth or sixth grade, and ninth grade.

In many traditional schools, enrollment picks up in the later grades. Between 2006 and 2014, the number of test-takers increased from 77 to 109 between third and eighth grade in District 7. Proficiency, on the other hand, dropped from 30% to 28%.

It is not only backfilling, but enrollment policies, suspension and expulsion practices, and services to students with special needs that have come into question as key issues with charter advocates nationwide.