The smaller number of students in charter school classrooms is often seen as a symbol of success, but traditional public school advocates say it sometimes comes at a heavy price.
Some adversaries of the charter school movement—the growth of public schools run by third-party not-for-profit boards—argue that low teacher-to-student ratios in charters hurt the traditional public schools they often outperform. When charter school classes are smaller, critics say, more students end up in public schools, increasing their class sizes. But the leaders of new charter schools, numbers of which have grown significantly in Harlem, say that the opposition is twisting the facts.
This week, schools are anticipating the release of preliminary data from the New York City Department of Education on class sizes in charter schools, numbers that will fuel the ongoing debate.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters,a nonprofit that advocates for smaller class sizes in New York City, argued that the small class sizes that charter schools provide have helped them close the achievement gap. But she criticized charters for taking public school spaces, which she feels pushes out students and strains an already overrun system.
“Charter schools do have smaller class sizes,” Haimson said. “The ones that tend to get the best results … have very small classes, two or three teachers per class.”
“It’s great that charter schools have smaller classes,” she added, “but not at the cost of overcrowding public schools and denying the same opportunity to public school students.”
Opponents of charters have argued that two pending issues in the debate—overcrowding and individual class size—are sometimes intertwined. Dianne Johnson, president of the Community Education Council for District 5 in Harlem, echoed Haimson, saying, “When charter schools come into community zone schools, they … take away public school classrooms on certain floors, which means that either the community school winds up moving a grade, and the classrooms in the grades that they have wind up increasing.”
Charter schools take a different stance. Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep Charter School in Central Harlem, said he saw no relationship between charter school class sizes and traditional public school class sizes, pointing to the uniform DOE process of allocating space. According to Andrew, all space in public schools—charter or traditional—is distributed according to the number of enrolled students.
“People who try to somehow argue that charter schools are doing something to affect public school class sizes are misleading and misconstruing the facts,” he said.
Andrew also made a distinction between the issue of overcrowding and class size, arguing that charter schools are not responsible for filling public buildings beyond their capacity.
“The vast majority of Harlem public schools are under-enrolled compared to capacity,” he said, adding that charter schools, which serve students from the same area based on a random lottery, are granted access to under-utilized public space.
Jenny Sedlis, director of external affairs for the Success Charter Network, which oversees the Harlem Success Academy charter school, agreed that charter schools are merely filling empty seats. “The under-use of space in Harlem is changing because the Department of Education is putting more charter schools into public school spaces,” she said.. According to Sedlis, there are 13,000 unused student seats in Harlem and an incredibly high demand for charter schools, which often occupy this unused space. Many charter schools have “fairly large classes,” said Will Havemann, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. Each charter school, he said, chooses the size of its classes at its own discretion.
“It is an instructional decision based one, on the availability of space, and two, on how many teachers the school employs,” Havemann said, adding that the DOE had no statistics available.
Overcrowding does hit charter schools too, according to Deborah Kenny, founder and chief executive officer of Harlem Village Academies, where the average class size is 28 students.
“We have to struggle to make up the difference,” Kenny said of the lower levels of funding charter schools receive from the DOE. “We are very crowded—we have to do some of our tutoring in the hallways.”
For some charters, class size is important, but not the top priority. Sedlis and Andrew agreed that teacher training and recruitment are higher priorities. But Andrew argued that the issue of class size has been exploited by public school advocates that actually just want to see more jobs for teachers in the market.
“The factor that drives quality is the quality of the teacher in the classroom, far more than class size,” he said.
Johnson of District 5 countered, saying that the number of students in the classroom is always important. “Class size does matter,” she said, “because if you have a set number of kids per class, they’ll be able to learn instead of being underneath each other.”