the new space wars

As charter sector continues to swell, a space dilemma grows for de Blasio

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

City education officials aren’t backing away from a pledge to not force additional schools to share space, even in the face of a new law that will make that a pricey proposition.

This week, a top city education official said that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has given orders not to make any space-sharing plans until the city has come up with better ways to get feedback from community members. Fariña wants future co-locations to happen only when they “come from the community and are not imposed on them,” Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a City Council hearing.

The statement from Grimm, the department’s longtime school facilities chief, signaled that the de Blasio administration remains committed to limiting future co-locations. (A department spokeswoman later said that a new process would solicit more community feedback, but that the city would still come up with its own proposals.)

Together, the statements outline the difficult position that Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon find himself in, given the continued growth of charter schools—which city officials do not control—and new charter school legislation, which will make co-locations financially advantageous.

“The governor has presented the mayor with a Hobson’s choice: spend money on facilities or disrupt schools daily through co-location,” said Brooklyn College Education Professor David Bloomfield.

The new law requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside the city’s own buildings or public funding to cover rent in a private facility. The legislation is a rebuke from state lawmakers of de Blasio’s criticism of charter schools during the mayoral campaign and his early months in office.

One challenge the law poses for de Blasio is that it makes financial sense to keep charter schools in city buildings. If the city doesn’t provide space, the law provides for charters to receive an extra funding allowance for each student, which in 2015 would be $2,775, from the city.

Thirteen charter schools have already been approved to open that year, serving 2,000 students at first and 5,800 at full capacity. Private space for those schools would cost as much as $5 million in the 2015-16 school year and $16 million once they are all at capacity, based on enrollment estimates.

In addition, the city is planning to spend $5.4 million next year for three displaced  Success Academy schools, which will have fewer than 500 students next year, to operate in Catholic school buildings.

Many of the schools approved to open in 2015 originally told their authorizers that they were planning to find, and pay for, private space, but the new legislation is likely to change those calculations. Vasthi Acosta, head of Amber Charter School, said the school’s board will consider requesting city space or funding for their newly approved second school.

The other option for de Blasio—siting all of the new charter schools in public school buildings—is likely to be a hard sell to communities.

Charter school co-locations, which make up about 10 percent of co-locations citywide, have frequently stirred resentment from parents and staff members at traditional public schools—some of which have been required to downsize to make room in their buildings. Bloomberg’s critics saw the encroachment as symbolic of his eagerness to supplant the traditional public education system with privately-run charter schools.

Some co-locations also cause major inconveniences. Schools have had to use auditoriums for storage and closets for classrooms, conditions that may violate students’ state constitutional rights, the Campaign for Educational Equity argued in a new research brief.

But supporters of the co-location policy also see it as an innovative—albeit imperfect— way to deal with New York City’s unavoidable space-crunch. And they point to a body of research that links the small schools and charters, which co-locations often made possible, to improved academic outcomes for students.

David Umansky, CEO of Civic Builders, a nonprofit that helps develop private space for charter schools, said he believes there is enough space in the system’s 1,200 buildings to responsibly add new schools. The question is, he added, how much the administration is willing to “deal with difficult issues with the communities.”

For a mayor who has promised to build consensus around major school planning decisions, and wants to keep money in the traditional school system, neither option is a clear win.

That leaves de Blasio and Fariña focused on changing a co-location decision-making process they have said is in serious need of repair.

To fix it, they have created two working groups whose members include several charter school leaders, including KIPP Founder Dave Levin. (Umansky is part of one.) Their charge is to identify ways to change to how school space is measured and allotted in the city’s yearly building utilization report, known as the “blue book,” and improve the public review process.

Some cosmetic changes are coming soon. Lorraine Grillo, CEO of the School Construction Authority, said at the hearing this week that it would be released earlier to give officials more planning time and be more “user-friendly” than previous versions. Substantive tweaks to the way school space is calculated won’t happen until next year, Grillo said.

Still, not all charter school co-locations are contentious. At the John F. Kennedy Campus, the two New Visions charter schools are seen as good neighbors by people working in the building’s six other high schools.

“People say, how do the charter schools and the district schools co-habitate so happily?” Karalyne Sperling, a principal in the building. She says it’s because most of the schools are associated with New Visions, a non-profit that also provides support to district schools.

“We have so many people that we know in common that it makes us more friendly toward each other and work things out,” Sperling added.

Follow Chalkbeat on Twitter for the latest New York City schools news. 

rebuffed

Charter applications rejected by Memphis school officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.