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.

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BARRIERS TO ACCESS

Public transportation won’t solve Denver’s school choice woes, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Riders disembark a Denver city bus.

Providing all Denver middle and high school students with free public transportation is unlikely to result in equal access to the city’s best schools, according to a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state.

The concentration of the best schools in central Denver, coupled with the city’s large size and geographic quirks, mean that only 58 percent of students could get to one of the small number of top-rated middle and high schools in 30 minutes or less by public transit, the study found.

Racially segregated housing patterns make the odds worse for African-American and Latino students: While 69 percent of white students could get to a top-rated school in 30 minutes or less, just 63 percent of black students and 53 percent of Latino students could. A similar gap exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Lack of transportation is often cited as a barrier to school choice, even in a school district like Denver Public Schools that strives to make choice easy for families. While DPS does not promise transportation to every student who chooses a charter school — or a district-run school outside their neighborhood — the district has for six years provided shuttle bus service to students attending all types of schools in the northeastern part of the city.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised that system, known as the Success Express, in a speech in March. But expanding it to cover the entire city would cost too much.

Community advocates have been pushing instead for the city and the school district to work together to provide more bus passes to high school students. Currently, DPS gives passes to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The district earmarked $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November for that purpose, and city officials have said they’d contribute money toward the initiative too.

The study suggests free bus passes aren’t the solution.

“Our analysis shows that most of the city’s students can reasonably use public transit to get to their current school,” the study says, “but public transit won’t necessarily help them access the city’s highest-performing schools.”

The study offers other strategies to increase students’ access to top schools, including sending those who live near Denver’s borders to better-performing schools in the suburbs.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.