space wars

Charter advocacy group pushes city for more school space

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Evan Meyers, the founder of School in the Square, knows that finding space for a new charter school can be a huge headache.

Meyers spent over a year looking in “every nook and cranny and church space and community center” trying to find suitable options, suffered through two deals that fell through, and eventually moved his school to a church in Washington Heights, instead of setting up shop in the Bronx district he wanted to serve.

His experience is all too common, argues Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group that has long battled Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Based on a new analysis of 2014 building utilization data, the group argues the city could co-locate more charter schools within traditional school buildings, which are often preferable to charters compared to converting private space into a school.

FES found that 67 schools in the city have room for more than 500 additional students.

“[De Blasio’s] administration is still denying space to charter schools while 150,000 classroom seats in district schools remain empty,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools.

City officials said the report is unfair. The data shows only a snapshot of school capacity that does not include planned changes, such as expansions or projected enrollment. It also does not provide an assessment of the type of space available, city officials said.

“This report is misleading and does not accurately characterize the utilization of school buildings across the City,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness. “We work closely with [Community Education Councils], community members, school leadership teams and elected officials to ensure capacity across the city is being used efficiently to meet the needs of all students.”

The new analysis builds on a long and contentious debate. In 2014, Eva Moskowitz, the vocal leader of the city’s largest charter school network, fought with Mayor Bill de Blasio over charter school space. In the end, the state passed a law that requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside city buildings or provide public funding to cover the cost of rent in a private facility.

Still, finding space, particularly co-located space, which requires fewer renovations, remains among the top concerns for most charter schools, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Of the 81 schools that have applied for space since the the state’s new law, 54 have moved into private space and 19 have been co-located, according to a Politico article from February.

The problem is also likely to worsen as the charter sector grows. This year alone, 15 more charter schools are slated to open across the city. By now, most of the locations that could be used without inciting community backlash are already taken, Merriman said.

“As time has gone by, the obvious spaces to place charters, to place any co-location, has decreased,” Merriman said “and those that exist are generally viewed as politically combustible.”

The FES analysis also tries to paint a picture of exactly where there is extra co-located space available. It finds that Brooklyn has the most buildings with excess space. Twenty-six schools are using less than half of their seats in Brooklyn, according to the report.

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would cover half the cost. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices involving science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November, as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST has said it would help with fundraising for the building, but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on funding for buildings, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities for the two new schools.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6-12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST officials noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also noted that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents drive her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials said in an update about work on bond projects that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open-enrollment schools, meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST officials also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee and District Accountability Committee before going to the school board for a final decision in June.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.