Beyond the Battle Lines: Lessons from New York's Charter Caps Fight

Christina Hentges

Lisa M. Stulberg
Center on Reinventing Public Education
June 2007

New York State first authorized charter schools in 1998 with a cap of 100 schools. Eight years later, 100 institutions held charters, and a raucous debate and much politicking erupted over what to do, leading, a few months back, to a cap-lifting to 200. In the latest report from the National Charter School Research Project, Stulberg delicately navigates the tumult to offer policy recommendations for New York and other states caught in similar discussions. History shows that New York's key education players--governors, mayors, and school boards, but especially legislators and teachers unions--don't necessarily toe party or organizational lines. Stulberg cites various examples of legislators who cross party lines on the cap issue and notes that teachers unions, while pressing for tight caps, even run a few charter schools themselves. Optimist though she may be in so fraught a political environment, Stulberg sees ways that a more nuanced debate could improve charter laws down the road. Instead of using caps as either a blunt stick or carrot, for instance, policymakers could use them strategically to help guide the growth of charter schools. This might involve holding charter schools accountable to quality standards and allowing exemptions from the cap once school operators prove competent. Alternatively, state officials could give local leaders discretion in such matters to accommodate regional differences. Stulberg cautions, however, that using caps as a means to an end requires a thoughtfully crafted law--no small challenge for bickering factions in Albany and many other state capitals. Read her report here.

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