Bill de Blasio’s stance on charter schools may feel like a bitter pill to swallow for charter advocates,after Bloomberg championed charters for the last 12 yearsas a key remedy for fixing an ailing school system. In de Blasio’s view, however, charter schools are only a small ingredient inhis formula of education policiesthatportend a major shift in focus and funding towards traditional public schools.
Snapshot of Charters – History and Results
The charter school movement was bornsome20 years agoto create healthy competition for flagging public schoolsand establish “education laboratories” that could develop new teaching techniques and other innovations to better educatelow income children. School districts could then adoptthese new methodson a larger scale. Huge amounts of capital for charter school operations, as well as for their lobbyingactivities, have flowed into the charter sector from foundations, philanthropists, corporations, and even hedge funds. Some expertsworry that the charter movement is now seriously undermining the U.S. public school system in its quest to privatize schoolswith a free-market, school choice model on an increasingly large scale.
Widely-accepted research shows that charter students nationwide perform no better than public school students, but in New York City, charter school students in 3rd-8thgrades have consistently outperformed district school students on State math and ELA (English Language Arts) tests, according to the NYC Charter School Center.However, the new Common Core State tests launched last spring, that saw plummeting scores for all students,revealed a narrower gap. City-wide, charter students continued to post higher proficiency rates than district students on the math test (35% vs. 30%), but ELAproficiency rates were slightly lower (25% vs. 26%). For high schools, the Center reported that “rates of college readiness and college enrollment lag those of district high schools,” although data is scarce withonly seven charter high schools yet havinga graduating class.In its extensive data reports, the Center warns that test score comparisons may not control for differences in student demographics between charter and public schools. Although charter schools conduct lotteries for their admissions, stronger students with more family support tend to self-select in applying to charters. This self-selection phenomenon is also a factor in charters having lower percentages of ELL (English Language Learners) and Special Education students than district schools. For the first time this year, enrollment data more on parity with the district will be evaluatedin renewal of charter licenses.
“Let’s Talk About the 95%”
De Blasiocommends the “many charters that are doing a good job,” but despite charter wait lists that total 50,000 students, hebelieves the current number of charters to be “about right.” Today, thereare 183 charter schools, up from 17 when Bloomberg took office 12 years ago, serving 70,000 students or 6% of the 1.1 million city school children (10% when charters expand to their licensed grade level capacity). A call for de Blasio to open 100 more charters in his four-year term came from the charter advocacy group, The Coalition for Education Equity. Yet,de Blasio wants to keep the current State-set cap which would allow only 66 new charters. At the final Mayoral debate, heshowedhis impatience with all the charter acrimony distracting from the task at hand.“I’d like the debate in this town to shift to the things that will really fix education for the long-term. Let’s talk about the schools that serve 95% of our kids.”
New Sliding Scale Rent: The Devil is in the Details
De Blasio hopesto bolster district schoolsby charging rent to charters co-located in district school buildings,currently two-thirds of all city charters. New York City is the only city in the U.S. (other than Memphis) that offers charters free use of district facilities. Some legal experts claim that State law mandates the Department of Education (DOE) to have a contract with co-located charters that provides for facilities and related services “at cost.” A lawsuit charging the DOE with violating such law is still in the appeals process at the State Supreme Court.
All city charter schools receive public funding of $13,527 per student, but according to the NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO), the free use of facilities “is another form of public support” that co-located charters receive, estimated by the IBO at an additional $2,400 per student. In sharp contrast, the other one-third of city chartersin non-district buildingspayfor their own facilities out of their own budgets. De Blasio intendsto end this legacy system of inequitable subsidies byassessing rent on a sliding scale based on each charter school’s financial resources.
Outraged charter advocates claim that charter schools are public schools too, with the right to operate in district buildings free of charge. Some charters on razor thin budgets warn that the added rent burden will lead to deficits and may force them to shut their doors. Othercharter operators, though, are large, well-funded non-profit organizations with business models that include fundraising departments, $400,000+ CEO salaries, advertising budgets, and lobbying expenses. “It is insult to injury to give them free rent,” de Blasio snapped at a Mayoral debate. Also disturbing to de Blasio is the divisiveness that often arises in schools with co-located charters. All the “extras” that can come with charters’ extra funding, like after-school tutors, dance classes, and even iPads, are plain to see for district school students down the hall, and these stark differences can be dispiriting.
De Blasiobelieves that his rent plan is a crucial step in counterbalancing the built-in advantage charters have over public schools in their access to private capital, and he promises thesliding scale will fairly incorporate differences in resources among charters. A well-endowed chain operator like Success Academy, with 22 city charter schools and $35 million in cash, would pay at the top end of the scale. A mom-and-pop independent charter schoollike MESA High School in Brooklyn,withno endowment or fundraising resources,may payno rent at all.
Establishing a rent formula that is defensible and equitable will be complex and contentious. A whole new level of disclosure from charterswill also be required, which has long been called for amidst complaints about lack of transparency on charterfinances, funding sources, and political contributions, in addition toaccountability metrics such as enrollment demographics, student attrition, disciplinary policies, and teacher turnover.
Villagers and Others Fight Charter Invasion
Educating low income “at-risk” students in struggling urban schools was the catalyst for the charter movement, anddemand for charters has indeed been robust in Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the South Bronx, where charters represent 25% of schools in somecommunities. In recent years, however, charters have beenencroaching neighborhoods with a history of strongdistrictschools and parents deeply rooted to theirlocal schools. District 2, which includesthe Village, Chelsea, Lower Manhattan, and the Upper East Side, is an affluent districtwith schools that have consistently been the highest performing academically in all five boroughs. There are only five charter schools in this huge district, and District 2 parents have been vocal in large numbers insisting they do not want or need charters,nor the “school choice”that comes with them. They have seen how charters can break apart tight-knit school communities that are functioning well for students and families. What is most wanted and needed, parents say, is more neighborhood elementary and middle schools to alleviate overcrowding, not charters.To prevent new charters being forced upon communities, de Blasio plans a moratorium on co-located charters “until a more honest, inclusive and fact-based process can be implemented.”
Closing the Charter Divide to Move Forward
The City’s bitter charter divide seemsintractable after years of Bloomberg’s “decision by fiat” approach to rapidly expand charter schools. As de Blasio points out, “This division pits parents against each other, undermines the quality of education, and makes it harder to institute fundamental improvements in all of our city schools.”De Blasio’ssignaturepolicies are wellknown by now after the long campaign season: universal pre-K, after-school programs for all middle schools, and 100 new community schools (schools that also provide adjunct services for health, housing, employment, and other family supports). Paying for these expensive initiatives througha State-approvedhigher income tax on wealthy New Yorkers will be one of de Blasio’s toughest hurdles out of the starting blocks.
Amid the ongoing charter battle, some signs of collaboration and rapprochementbetween factionsare surfacing. The hand-off of best practices from charters to district schools, a key mission of the charter movement, is never easy. NYC Collaborates is one promising effort, bringing educatorsof charter and district schools together to discuss how to scale successful curriculums, classroom management techniques, teacher training, and school day schedules. Another group, the Collaboration Council, includes 20 educators from large district schools, charter schools, specialized schools, and other organizations to unite leaders in sharing best practices and addressing policy questions.
Not all charters have chosen to suit up for combat against de Blasio. In early October, when Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz led over 17,000 charter school parents, students, and supporters in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest de Blasio’s policies, a letter signed by several charter school leaderswas released, stating that the “march seems at best premature.” The signatories came from independent charter schools not part of a large charter organization like Success Academy, with itsdeep-pocketed investors and use of charter schools as a political mechanism to push areform agenda. Although the letterspelled out arguments against de Blasio’s plan to charge rent, it applauded his educational policies. “If we focus on the substance of Mr. de Blasio’s platform, it would seem that there is much to celebrate.” As de Blasio said it best just days before winning the landslide election, “In the end, our city rises and falls on traditional public schools.”