Nation's educators watching new NYC mayor's moves on charter schools

Bill de Blasio vowed to end 'two-class system,' making charter school supporters nervous about drastic changes

Charter school backers are worried about the future of such institutions under Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NEW YORK — In early October, just weeks before he was elected mayor of the largest city in the nation, Bill de Blasio made a declaration that resonated with urban education officials and other city officials around the country.

“I won’t favor charters,” he told the crowd at the high profile City Lab Summit in Lower Manhattan, an inaugural event attended by 30 mayors, in addition to city planners, scholars and architects from across the globe that was billed by organizers as a conference aimed at crafting urban solutions to global problems. “Our central focus is traditional public schools.”

Less than a mile away, on the same day, thousands of charter school parents, students and educators held a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge to express their opposition to one of the candidate’s key campaign promises: his plan to charge rents to charter schools.

“Don’t charge us rent; we’re the 99 percent,” shouted the protesters as they marched to City Hall, mimicking the infamous Occupy Wall Street rallying cry against income inequality and challenging the candidate on his progressive credentials.

De Blasio had made the issue of charging rents to charter schools a central piece of his “A Tale of Two Cities” campaign theme — a rejection of what he said was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s negligence for the city’s poor and working class. It was the most strident rejection of the mayor’s contentious legacy on remaking the city’s traditional public education system with its infusion of charter schools into underperforming public schools. City Hall enticed charters with incentives of free rent and opportunities to quickly expand. But, despite higher test scores and what they marketed to parents as a higher quality education than a traditional public school, charter schools have served as polarizing symbols of gentrification in the city’s low-income areas, critics say.

As de Blasio prepares to take the reins at City Hall on Wednesday, both charter and public school advocates remain unsure of how he will turn his campaign rhetoric into concrete policy. Both camps worry he may cave in too much to either side’s demands. And educators around the country will be paying attention.

The de Blasio transition team declined to comment for this article.

But numerous interviews with public and charter school administrators, union leaders, education policy activists, parents and teachers offer a glimpse into the divided city de Blasio will govern — and what kind of example he might set for other cities.

Bloomberg's boom

Initially established by the New York State Charter Schools Act of 1998 to be independent public schools that operated under five-year charters, the number of charter schools in Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure has risen from 17 when he took office in 2002 to 183. They serve more than 70,000 students and account for roughly 6 percent of the city’s 1.1 million-student population, according to the New York City Charter School Center, an independent nonprofit that tracks the city’s charter school data.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Kerri Lyons, a spokesperson for Success Academy, a Harlem-based charter schools network that is the city’s largest with 22 operating schools. “Demand for our schools is so high that we can’t possibly expand quickly enough. Parents are looking for options for the best education for their children and they aren’t finding it in their local public schools.”

But critics argue charter schools have essentially become competitors with traditional public schools for the best performing students.

“The premise behind charter schools was that they would be innovators and incubators for new ideas in education,” said Ernest Logan, president of the city’s school principals, supervisors and education administrators union, who has been one of the most prominent opposition voices to Bloomberg’s education policies in recent years. “What they have become has been competitors for public funds operating on a corporate model and without any accountability for any of the innovations they were designed to create.”

Unlevel playing field?

Charter schools, often managed as nonprofits, receive public funding but operate independently of the school system, allowing them the liberty to establish their own curriculum, schedule and staffing. Each charter school network operates under the direction of its own appointed board of directors, which in some cases includes anyone from a local city councilman to Wall Street hedge fund managers. School admittance rates can vary, but some charter networks — such as Success Academy and KIPP NYC, the city’s two largest — accept well below 10 percent of applicants, all of whom are selected through a random lottery system that gives priority to children who reside in the district where the school is located.

Roughly two-thirds of the city’s charters are “co-located,” meaning they occupy space in an existing public school building and do not pay rent, in addition to utilities, janitorial services and for school safety officials, according to public records. For a charter network such as Success Academy, whose 22 schools are all co-located, this means millions of dollars saved every school year.

Last June, when he first started rising above his Democratic primary challengers in the polls, candidate de Blasio called for a moratorium on all co-location charters, citing overcrowding and increased class sizes in traditional public schools that was creating what he called a “two-class system” of haves and have nots.

A 2011 report cited by de Blasio from the city’s Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan city budget information, which shows that co-located charter schools saved on average $2,712 per student in the 2008-09 school year, which totaled more than $96 million saved at that time. Experts today estimate savings to be more than $100 million, which critics say gives charter schools an unfair advantage in resources and violate a provision of New York State Education Law which states that a charter school “may contract with a school district or the governing body of a public college or university for the use of a school building and grounds,” but that any such “contract shall provide such services or facilities at cost.” The city’s Department of Education is facing a lawsuit from more than 20 plaintiffs about the alleged violation.

Charter school officials contend they are public schools and shouldn’t be treated differently. They say paying rents would be devastating to their budgets.

Parents' perspectives

Miyonna Milton-Otobo doesn’t care much for the political posturing of both charter school advocates and teachers unions in the fight to remake traditional public education in this city.

“The question of charter schools versus traditional publics shouldn’t even be an issue because it misses the bigger point,” said Milton-Otobo, whose two children attend a public school in central Harlem, “which is the failure of our education system.”

Milton-Otobo is the PTA president at her children’s school — a small magnet international baccalaureate candidate school, which shares building space with the much larger Future Leaders Institute, a charter school. Despite the charter’s resource advantages and more extensive curriculum, Otobo said she never seriously considered placing her children in the upstairs FLI School because charters “don’t place an emphasis on one’s ability to learn. All children don’t learn in the same manner. Charter schools are constantly assessing a child’s aptitude with testing. Is that really an accurate indicator?”

Charter schools specifically target low-income, heavily minority neighborhoods, Milton-Otobo said, because “they see us as the most vulnerable, the most willing to accept what they’re telling us in their glossy marketing ads.”

Jose Santiago is a self-described “convert” to the charter school movement. His son is a second-grade student at Success Academy Upper West, which shares building space with four other schools in a former public high school building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His son takes courses on Greek literature, creative writing and enjoys recess twice a day.

“The commitment by the entire faculty — every single teacher is committed to the learning of these students, “ said Santiago, who grew up in East Harlem where he attended city public schools. “It’s definitely a different experience (than a traditional public school). They are constantly setting the bar higher or lower. They’re constantly assessing.”

Santiago said de Blasio’s “anti-charter” rhetoric was expected; given that still more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend traditional public schools and his solid support for the city’s teachers union. But, he said he hopes de Blasio will not “take it to the extreme because that will really set us back.”

National implications

Charter school advocates nationwide are watching New York City closely to determine the movement’s next steps. There are 2.8 million charter school students across the country, roughly 5 percent of the nation’s K-12 student population, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Because it’s the largest school district in the nation, the nation looks to New York City as a model,” said Nina Rees, president of the organization, which is the leading nonprofit group committed to advancing the charter school movement nationally. “For the past 12 years, New York City has been a hotbed of reform on the education side.”

De Blasio’s campaign promise to charge rents to charter schools would set “a troubling precedent,” Rees said. Although the Alliance denies having made official contact with de Blasio’s transition team, Rees said they have worked “closely with New York City charter school principals to elevate their profiles, their stories, in the court of public opinion.”

For their part, public school advocates in Washington continue their fight to stop further charter expansion. Only eight states do not allow charters and legislative efforts are underway in California to further expand its already nearly half-million charter school student population, the country’s largest.

For Logan, president of New York’s school administrators union, it’s a fight he’s willing to take on.

“We can’t let charters come in and decide for themselves what is best for our communities,” he said. “We must not stop the fight; we will pressure the new mayor and, ultimately, we know we will prevail because we’re on the right side of the debate.”

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