“We’re going to come up with a protocol for those audits, and we are going to audit charter schools,” Stringer said.
The audit will be particularly poignant after SUNY’s board of directors approved the creation of 17 new charter schools last week, despite protest from parents and the discovery of data that suggests that SUNY’s already-existing Success Academy schools are grossly under-enrolled.
Parents then turned to the City Comptroller for help, publicly asking Stringer to conduct an audit of SUNY. In a press release, parents called for “an independent audit by the NYC Comptroller of the enrollment, attrition, suspension and expulsion rates, particularly for high-needs students, at all charter schools to determine how widespread missed (legally mandated) targets are.”
Stringer said that while not all requests for audits are granted, his office considers every complaint brought to them.
“We don’t only respond to the heat of the moment, because something that may be an issue today may not be an issue a year from now,” he said. “So we try to come up with the right mix of agencies and boroughs. And when somebody gets to the steps of City Hall and says, ‘Hey, Comptroller, we want you to look at this,’ we certainly discuss it.”
In the case of the City's charter schools, Stringer had already been requested and received the authorization to conduct an audit earlier this year. New information and requests from angered parents will be taken into consideration in the investigation.
When asked if he had any immediate reaction to the numbers showing under-enrollment at existing charter schools, Stringer said that he would remain neutral during the audit in order to maintain his “credibility.”
“A lot of people have different opinions on this,” Stringer said. “Part of what I have to do, in order to maintain credibility, is to take a step back and take information in, but not necessarily have a discussion about that information, because otherwise the audit becomes partisan.
“One of the things that we’ve able to do in my office is we’ve been able to look at things based on facts and figures and then make a determination. Your office is only as good as its credibility.”
Charter schools have a long history of contention in New York City, and the recent approval by the State University of New York (SUNY) of 17 more charter schools across the five boroughs has only fueled the fire.
Numerous parents rallied with councilman and chair of the Education Committee Danny Dromm before a meeting of SUNY trustees to demand a moratorium on all charter school approvals, after concerning data regarding enrollment at already existing schools was uncovered.
Local public school parents searched through the School Construction Authority’s “Blue Book” and found evidence that more than two-thirds of Success Academy charter schools were under-enrolled in the 2013-2014 school year.
Besides standing in clear opposition to claims of wait lists and need for more schools, drastic under-enrollment is supposed to elicit action from SUNY. If a school falls below 80 percent of its targeted enrollment, the overseer is charged with closing that school.
Last school year, four Success Academy charter schools did not reach that 80 percent benchmark. The four schools — in Fort Greene, Crown Heights, Hell’s Kitchen and Union Square — were under-enrolled by 22 percent.
On average, schools in the Success Academy network were under-enrolled by 7.6 percent.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said public school parent Brooke Parker. “SUNY has knowingly withheld enrollment data for charter schools from the taxpaying public, even though taxpayer dollars bankroll charters.
“If we had open access to enrollment information, I am convinced that we would find that even more charter schools have been allowed to open, remain open, and even expand despite their inability to meet enrollment targets,” she added. “That’s outrageous. And illegal.”
Public school parents who want the funds that are allocated to charter schools to instead be used to support and expand existing public schools, asked that in light of the enrollment data, a full and independent investigation of SUNY be conducted. They called on City Comptroller Scott Stringer to also conduct an independent audit of the charter schools.
Many parents, on the other hand, are supportive of charter schools in their neighborhoods due to their high success rates. Students at Success Academy schools regularly outperform their peers on state tests.
Critics point out that these successful charter schools typically teach a fewer number of English language learners and special education students. Dromm joined the outraged parents, saying that charter schools have “failed our children.”
"We are demanding that SUNY not authorize any new charter schools until questions about accountability and oversight have been addressed," Dromm said. "The fact is that many charter schools have failed our children by not backfilling seats when they become vacant, teach to a smaller number of English language learners and special education students and totally resist transparency.
“New York State cannot continue to throw over $1 billion at charter schools while these issues remain unresolved,” he added. “We insist on local control over our schools."
SUNY board members ignored the call, however, and approved 14 new Success Academy schools and three new Achievement First charter schools last Wednesday.
After the approval, the chairman of the state’s charter schools committee, Joseph Belluck, was quoted in the New York Times stating that his conversations with parents have led him to believe that they are fully supportive of the new schools.
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents, and the one thing that I am convinced of is that the parents in the communities where these schools are do not care about the politics of this issue,” he is quoted as saying. “They want their kids to have good schools, and they want their kids to have a good education.”
This is a direct contradiction to the over 250 emails that have been sent to the SUNY Board of Trustees over the past two weeks from parents who oppose Success Academies in their districts, parent advocate Liz Rosenberg said.
“When will the SUNY Board of Trustees respond to these parents? And more importantly, act in ways that are responsive to New York City communities,” Rosenberg wrote in an email to Belluck. “Your comments in the Times today effectively silenced any parent who took the time to really tell you what they want, think and believe.”