Kathy Hochul Is Trying to Privatize More of New York’s Public School System

In her budget proposal this year, New York governor Kathy Hochul is proposing to raise the limit on the number of charter schools in the state. It would worsen the disaster for public education that the charter movement has already caused.

Governor Hochul's proposed charter cap raise could mean the creation of close to 320 additional charter schools statewide. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

Last year, centrist New York governor Kathy Hochul used state budget negotiations to push through a massive giveaway of public funds for the construction of a new Buffalo Bills stadium in her hometown. With this year’s budget process — apparently unfazed by the Democratic state legislature’s embarrassing rejection of her nominee for chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals — Hochul is again pushing conservative priorities. This time, that includes advancing the school privatization movement.

Hochul’s preliminary $227 billion state budget proposal for the fiscal year 2024, unveiled on February 1, contains a proposal to lift the statewide cap on privately run charter schools. This would create licenses for more than eighty new charters to operate in the state; it would also revive close to two dozen “zombie” charters, charter schools that had previously failed. Factoring in a loophole in state law that allows each corporate charter to operate an elementary, middle, and high school, the charter cap raise could mean the creation of close to 320 additional charter schools statewide.

Creating more privately run yet publicly funded charter schools was a terrible idea under former NYC mayor and “school choice” evangelist Michael Bloomberg, and it’s even more indefensible today.

The Trojan Horse of “School Choice”

Under the current cap, New York has about 460 charter schools operating statewide, with just under 300 of those in New York City alone. Already about 14 percent of New York City’s one million students attend corporate charters. (This pales in comparison to localities such as Buffalo, where 25 percent of students are in charters; the Buffalo school board recently reached a unanimous decision not to approve more charter licenses, citing the oversaturation of the school system.­) The governor’s plan would also eliminate New York City’s local cap on charters permitted to operate within the five boroughs.

Advocates for the city’s public school system fear this means the bulk of New York State’s new charters would open within city limits, creating more competition for fewer students. Adding new privately run charter schools to an already oversaturated educational landscape would be a disaster for New York City’s public school students and working-class families.

The origins of the school choice movement can be traced to the neoliberal theories of the Chicago School economists of the 1950s, including Milton Friedman. Using the language of choice, supporters of publicly funded charter schools proposed ways of limiting the role of government in schooling. These efforts took advantage of the genuine concerns of public school parents related to racial segregation in the public school system and concentrated urban poverty.

Parents’ desire to escape underfunded and overpopulated public schools is understandable to this day. But corporate education reform has proven to be an abject failure for charter school students, especially those from the most vulnerable families. The school choice movement has instead been a vehicle for the further privatization of public goods and the weakening of organized labor. (Most charter schools are nonunion, which is a big reason why their advocates love them.)

Charter schools, which are typically nonunion and subject to less oversight than regular public schools, systematically drain resources from the public school system. Though privately run, charter schools receive public funding through a voucher system, which allows per-pupil funds to follow students to the charters where they enroll. (They also benefit from additional private funding via their corporate backers.)

Traditional public schools therefore lose tax dollars and, sometimes more important, space to their corporate rivals. Many charters are colocated in already overcrowded public school buildings that house multiple schools, with the Department of Education footing the rent. Some charters with campuses in separate buildings even charge rent to public schools that rely on the utilization of these spaces.

Corporate charter schools are also notorious for what’s known as “creaming”: selecting for enrollment only the students they deem most desirable, then dumping those who don’t make the cut back into the public school system that is legally obligated to absorb them. The students who aren’t given seats tend to be the most vulnerable, especially English-language learners and those with the most acute special needs. These kids then end up back in progressively more crowded and underfunded public schools. It’s a vicious cycle: charter schools drain money and space from traditional public schools and then use the dire state of those schools to argue for diverting even more resources to charters.

Increased Funding for Whom?

The governor’s budget proposal includes raising spending on public education, with around $34.5 billion to be allocated for school districts, amounting to about a 4.5 percent increase in per-pupil funding. This represents a 10 percent increase in state funding compared with the previous budget. But which schools and students will actually benefit from this increase in funding? According to the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group for traditional public education, during the 2022–23 school year, New York City public schools received a $349 million increase in state aid. A staggering $200 million of that additional funding went to cover the increasing costs of privately run charter schools. In effect, 57 percent of the increased state education aid to the city went to only 14 percent of its students. If the cap is raised, we can expect an even more lopsided sum to end up in private hands.

Charter advocates point to the 9 percent drop in public school enrollment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as proof that New Yorkers prefer charter schools. This talking point conveniently omits the fact that, while charters have grown 8 percent over the same time period, this is only because of grade-level expansions at existing schools. Charters that were already offering K–12 education have seen their enrollment shrink across the board by around 58 percent. Charters only continue to grow by siphoning students and funding from the traditional public system — showing why it is imperative that the cap remain in place.

Though Hochul’s desires are clear, the charter school cap can only be raised if approved by the state assembly and senate. Our representatives must make it clear to Governor Hochul what New Yorkers have known for years, that the charter school experiment has been a failure, and that we demand a robustly funded public school system that delivers transparency, accountability, and quality education for all.