In New York City, a new siting process paves the way for more charter schools

The state budget bill’s expected passage includes several dramatic education policy shifts for the city, but perhaps none have been more fiercely debated than new provisions for providing new city charter schools with free or subsidized space.

Now that the dust has settled, the process that those charter schools will go through to get access to that space is under new scrutiny, as lawmakers and advocacy groups work to make sense of the new provisions.

The budget agreement doesn’t dig into the city’s mayoral control law, but it does dictate, quite specifically, what Mayor Bill de Blasio can and can’t do when apportioning public school space.

Here’s what we know about how the process will work. From now on, New York City is required to provide new charter schools with “access to facilities,” which is enshrined in law as either a free co-location plan or a rent subsidy for private space. After 2016, the state will cover some of the private costs.

Under the provision, eligible schools will need to submit a “written request” for public space, which state officials said could be done as part of their charter application. It is then up to the city to respond with an offer of city-owned space or pay a school extra to find its own facility.

But if de Blasio chooses the co-location route, he will be limited in where he can place the schools. The provision states that a school must get space in the district that its charter was approved for, meaning de Blasio could have trouble putting a school approved for the South Bronx in another high-needs area, such as East New York or Brownsville.

The law’s provision makes it clear that the plans also must follow the same rules governing its current co-location process.

For some lawmakers, the outlines weren’t enough of an explanation for how the space-allocation process—a fraught topic in New York City—will play out.

“No one can actually explain how this will actually work,” Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger said on the Senate floor while professing her opposition to the charter school provisions.

Harlem Assembly member Keith Wright, who sponsored a bill to curtail mayoral control because he disagreed with the Bloomberg administration’s handling of its space-sharing authority, said he was more supportive of the deal.

“I don’t know if I’m optimistic,” said Wright, whose district encompasses many of the charter school co-locations that have stoked the most controversy. “I’ll say I’m hopeful that we can at least stop the tension.”

Nevertheless, the law anticipates tension between the city and future charter schools and lays out a process for settling disputes over assigned space. Charter schools have 30 days after receiving the city’s offer to appeal, which can be done with a court lawsuit, a direct appeal to the state education commissioner, or through an independent arbitrator.

The teachers union and parents have often taken such legal action against the city in the past as a way to challenge Bloomberg’s charter school co-locations. Some were initially successful, but few, if any, resulted in reversing any co-locations purely through litigation.

It’s not clear how much these provisions will cost the city, state officials said. But de Blasio won’t have to pay much next year, when most of the new charter schools are already sited for public school space. And the three schools whose co-location plans were nixed by de Blasio in February are likely to get their space back as a result of the state legislation.

The city will incur more significant costs in the 2015-2016 school year and in subsequent years. In addition to the 24 schools approved to open next year and in 2015, the city is permitted to open an additional 52 schools under the state’s charter cap. Most of those schools have already been approved for public space and the de Blasio administration has said the 2015 plans are pending.

Under the new provisions, the city would be allowed to pay whichever is cheaper: the 20 percent extra in per pupil money, or the cost of rent that a private landlord is charging. 

One example of a charter school planning to open in 2015 is Charter High School for Law and Social Justice, which is seeking space in the South Bronx. If it opened in private space, they could be eligible, unless rent is cheaper, for roughly $333,000 from the city. The figure is based on additional per-pupil funding for 2015-2016, $2,775, and the 120 students who are projected to attend the school in its first year.


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the future site plans for the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice. 

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