Three of Long Island's five charter schools have long waiting lists, while one of the oldest of the institutions, Roosevelt Children's Academy, is on probation, with its charter renewal in jeopardy.
The five schools, with founding dates going back nearly 15 years, have a current total enrollment of more than 2,000 students -- a figure dwarfed by the 448,000-plus students in K-12 public schools on Long Island.
The charter schools generally draw praise from parents for the individual instruction and extended class days they provide, as well as being a tuition-free alternative to the public systems in their locales.
Critics, however, say charter schools weaken traditional public systems by taking away students and financial resources without being subject to commensurate budgetary and fiscal oversight. Nationally, enrollment in charter schools increased 80 percent between 2009 and 2012-13, according to a Stanford University study.
"With charter schools . . . you do have an array of different options out there, which offers families choice and can push traditional schools to change in different ways," said Hofstra University education Professor Catherine DiMartino, who has studied charters.
Charter schools, created in New York after passage of a 1998 state law, are tuition-free public schools created by parents, educators and community leaders that operate under a five-year contract. In New York, those charters are granted and considered for renewal by one of two government entities -- the state Board of Regents or the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, oversight bodies that set enrollment limits and must approve any expansions of the student body and class levels. Students who apply to any charter school are chosen by lottery.
In addition to the Roosevelt school, which opened in September 2000, there are two schools in Hempstead, and one each in Riverhead and in Wainscott. A group in Lawrence recently applied to the state to open a school there.
Charter school parents said they appreciate having a choice.
"I looked into the public schools and I didn't like what they had to offer," said Amise Dimanche, whose 7-year-old daughter is in third grade at Academy Charter School in Hempstead.
"It's much smaller and there is more attention," said Joyce Quintyne, who has a daughter in seventh grade at Roosevelt Children's Academy. "It's more convenient."
Checks and balances
The schools' critics also point out that charters don't have the checks and balances that traditional public schools do. The boards of charters are not elected trustees, but are self-selected and approved by the Regents or the SUNY Charter Schools Institute. In addition, critics say, while the schools receive taxpayer dollars on a per-pupil basis, their budgets are not reviewed in public hearings or put to a public vote.
"Our local dollars and taxpayer money are going to charter schools selected by the powers that be in Albany, but with little or no oversight as to their educational programs or finances," said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau Suffolk School Boards Association.
In New York City, where about 6.5 percent of the system's 1.1 million public school students are enrolled in charter schools, the movement has a vocal contingent of parents and educators in about 200 schools. They spoke out loudly earlier this year against Mayor Bill de Blasio's unsuccessful move to charge rent to charters housed in city-owned buildings and his proposal for a moratorium on space-sharing.
This month, an influential charter school network in New York City received approval to expand by more than one-third.
Statewide, nearly 78 percent of charter school students are in New York City charters -- 71,422 pupils of 91,927 across New York, state Education Department figures show. Of 248 charter schools across the state, 197 are in the city, according to the department.
The Island's charter schools have shown or sought expansion and improvements. Consider:
Academy Charter School in Hempstead, whose students are the top-performing of the five on state tests, added a grade and opened a middle school in September.
Evergreen Charter School, also in Hempstead, improved its 5-year-old green facility with creation of a room for music and dance, computer classrooms and a math classroom area. School officials said Evergreen, too, wants to expand to offer a middle school.
Riverhead Charter School plans to open a new, $14.1 million building next month for its K-7 student body and plans to add an eighth grade.
Child Development Center of the Hamptons in Wainscott, the smallest of the charters, aims to increase its enrollment to 100 students from the current 71, school officials said.
Of the five, Roosevelt Children's Academy, with 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is facing questions about its future. Its charter is due for renewal by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute. A decision will be made in January.
The institute's most recent evaluation report of the academy, in April 2013, found "the combination of the school's declining academic performance, leadership changes, staff turnover and concerns about its governance and fiscal affairs puts Roosevelt's renewal for an additional charter in doubt."
Scores on the decline
Monitors found that Roosevelt Children's Academy students' scores on state tests were on the decline, fiscal practices were unsound, and the board was diverting money to create a high school instead of spending it on students.
The Rev. Reginald Tuggle, the board president who is a co-founder of the school, acknowledged in a recent interview that the school has had problems, and said those have been addressed. Plans to build a high school were scrapped, he said, and the academy hired independent auditors and set aside funds for students. The charter school also gave teachers a substantial raise to put salaries on par with surrounding public districts, he said.
"The things we are cited for that we were doing, we should not have done," Tuggle said. "We stopped. We are very positive about the future of the school."
He said students' scores on state math tests have improved markedly, and the percentage falling behind in English language arts will be addressed firmly this school year.
In 2013-14, 44 percent of students reached proficiency on math exams, but only 14 percent reached proficiency on ELA tests, Education Department statistics show. Those scores the year before were 17 percent for math and 10 percent for ELA.
"Our anticipation is to move forward getting the charter renewed, and that means complying with all of the issues . . . cited in their earlier report," Tuggle said. "We are going to address all those issues and if we don't . . . we might not get [the charter] renewed."
Hofstra's DiMartino said the underlying principle of charter schools as an alternative can be undermined by issues such as those raised in Roosevelt. That responsibility lies in part with the agencies that grant charters, she noted.
"It gets tricky when the quality piece is not up to snuff, and we do see that," she said. "The whole idea is that you have to perform, and I think the state authorizers haven't always been good at saying, 'Are these charters performing?' "
Charter advocates argue that the schools do not receive funding equal to traditional public schools -- for example, they say that charters do not receive money for facilities.
Earlier this year, five Western New York families with children attending charter schools in Buffalo and Rochester filed a lawsuit in state court, challenging the constitutionality of the way the state allocates money to the schools.
The funding formula, they said, results in their children receiving 60 to 75 cents on every dollar spent on other public schools, and the lack of state money for facilities funding denies them access to a sound basic education, as required by the state constitution.
But some public school officials have been critical of charters drawing students, and the tax impact on local districts.
"On Long Island, this hits particularly hard because the districts are so small -- such as a Roosevelt or a Hempstead -- and they are losing kids to the local charters," DiMartino said. "And that has a big impact, in the millions."
Roosevelt and Hempstead public school officials did not return requests for comment.
More than 700 students are on waiting lists for the two charter schools in Hempstead.
Academy Charter School, the top-performing charter on the Island, opened a middle school this year, adding 150 students to bring the total enrollment to 750. Next, leaders there want to open a high school. The school currently has a waiting list of about 500 students, officials said.
Hempstead's other charter, Evergreen Charter School, has a waiting list of 250-plus students. It is located in a newly improved, environmentally friendly building that includes a large gymnasium. Students receive organic meals for breakfast and lunch.
"Parents should have the opportunity to make a choice of which kind of public education meets the needs of their children, traditional or nontraditional public schools, because they are the ones who pay the cost of their children's education through taxes," said founder Gil Bernardino, who also is founder and executive director of Círculo de la Hispanidad, a nonprofit serving the Nassau County community since 1980.
In Suffolk County, Riverhead Charter School plans to open a building in November that will have 18 classrooms, enough space to add an eighth grade. There are 75 now on a waiting list, said Principal Ray Ankrum.
State education officials are considering an application for a sixth charter on the Island, this one in the Lawrence school district.
The website of the Atlantic Beach Estates Association is asking residents to support a charter school. Education Department officials confirmed that an application from the New American Leadership Academy Charter School is under review. A recommendation to the Board of Regents will be made Nov. 14.
Gary Schall, superintendent of the Lawrence district, said the local school board opposes the action. "Lawrence has had a history of struggling to come together as a community. Finally, the community is beginning to unite and work as one," he said. "Given the diversity and diverse groups in this community, to have another component coming into the district could again cause divide."
With Michael R. Ebert
LONG ISLAND CHARTER SCHOOLS
Academy Charter School, Hempstead
Year established: 2009
Test scores: 34% for ELA; 62% for math in 2013-14
Hempstead public schools: 8% for ELA; 9% for math in 2013-14
Child Development Center of the Hamptons Charter School, Wainscott
Year established: 2000
Test scores: 17% for ELA; 20% for math in 2013-14
Wainscott public schools: Data suppressed because figure represents less than five students
Evergreen Academy, Hempstead
Year established: 2009
Test scores: 21% for ELA; 33% for math in 2013-14
Hempstead public schools: 8% for ELA; 9% for math in 2013-14
Riverhead Charter School
Year established: 2001
Test scores: 19% for ELA; 32% for math in 2013-14
Riverhead public schools: 23% for ELA; 29% for math in 2013-14
Roosevelt Children's Academy
Year established: 2000
Test scores: (Third-grade math and ELA): 14% for ELA; 44% for math in 2013-14
Roosevelt public schools: 10% for ELA; 12% for math in 2013-14
Sources: SUNY Charter Schools Institute; New York State Education Department; local charter schools