NYC Charter School Enrollment: from 2K to 59k in a Decade


During the 2002-2003 school year, 2,400 kids attended a charter school in New York City. Last year, 59,000 kids did.

Over that time, enrollment in traditional public schools and in Catholic schools dropped.

The stats, released in a recent Independent Budget Office analysis and first reported by the Daily News, quantify that rapid shift in the education landscape that Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to stop before quickly giving up. Never a good look to appear to stand between parents and their children’s education.

In 2002 there were 17 charter schools in NYC. Last year there were 183. Yet demand continues to outpace supply: from 2010 to 2013, the number of charter school applications increased from 54,000 to 69,000. Last year, 50,000 students remained on charter school waiting lists.

The competition for those seats is fierce because the public school system is broken, of course.

De Blasio has declared his intention to “fix the root causes,” which means shifting public resources away from charters and toward traditional public schools. Treating charters “the same way we treat traditional public schools,” he said in a radio interview. “We’re not going to favor them the way the Bloomberg administration did.”

His concern is that the current system has created two-tiers of public education. Charter schools have a lower percentage of special needs students. Of the city’s 40,000 homeless children, around 100 attend a charter school, according to NYU professor Diane Ravich’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” That a student applies to a charter in the first place suggests an active parent or other family member.

Traditional public schools, on the other hand, serve everybody: 980,000 students, down six percent from 2003.

De Blasio campaigned on improving the traditional public schools, to set the city on a path that ends one day with kids from even the most disenfranchised families getting a solid education. To the growing cohort of charter school families that might translate as: less funding for what is working now and more funding for what has not worked for decades.

But while the education reform debate often takes shape as “anti-charter vs. pro-charter,” the reality is much more intertwined: the neighborhoods that have most benefited from charter schools are the same ones most damaged by a weak public school system.

More than two-thirds of charter school applicants for the 2013-14 school year lived in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the boroughs with the two highest poverty rates. Between those boroughs, 43,000 students vied for less than 12,000 slots.