Last October, thousands of charter school parents swarmed Cadman Plaza to protest then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s open opposition to the booming charter school industry in New York City. They chanted and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall.
Their message? “Charter schools are public schools.”
Technically speaking, they’re right. The New York City Department of Education does categorize charter schools—which are publicly funded and privately operated—as public schools. But they aren’t bound by the same rules and regulations that traditional public schools are.
Charter schools don’t have to hire unionized teachers, they have free reign over student curriculum and while they’re publicly funded, many also receive private donations to supplement their budgets—some from major corporations and hedge funds, whose managers sit on the boards of some schools. Charter Schools given rent-free space inside public school buildings received about $649 more per student during the 2009-2010 school year according to a 2011 New York City Independent Budget Office report. These schools also don’t have to allocate money for some school services covered by the Department of Education, such as janitorial and school safety officials.
Despite state law that requires charter schools to lease or rent public building space, New York City charters have been allowed for years to “co-locate,” or share space with existing public schools. For free.
One such school is Success Academy. It’s one of New York’s biggest and most popular charter school networks, run by former city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. Moskowitz operates 26 co-located schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Tax forms filed in 2011 say the network itself finished the year with over $3 million in excess revenue, and that’s in addition to excesses at individual Success Academies all over the city. Large surpluses like this are nearly impossible to find in public schools.
Charter school advocates say their schools deserve to be treated fairly. But fair, in this case, might not mean equal.
Throughout his campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio openly criticized Michael Bloomberg’s controversial support of New York’s charter schools. In 2002, just 17 charter schools existed in the city. Today, there are 183, and more on the way. Mayor de Blasio’s plan to create a sliding rent payment scale, for charter schools like Success Academy that can afford it, is a fair way for one “public” entity to support another. Traditional public schools throughout the boroughs are starved for resources that many charter schools enjoy in excess.
Ann Neary, an English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx has a total of zero computers and an ancient chalkboard in her Advanced Placement English classroom. Eight years ago, she was trained to use an interactive whiteboard called a SmartBoard to aid in teaching lessons. The SmartBoard has yet to surface in her classroom. A fair system would charge rent to schools that can afford to pay it, using the money to rebuild classrooms like Neary’s and start technology and other programs at public schools that badly need it.
Not every charter school sits on wealth accrued through private donations. Harlem Link Charter School principal Steven Evangelista said the school had to dip into their meager reserves to cover operating costs for this school year. A fair system based on each individual school’s annual revenue would take into account the financial capabilities of each co-located school, leveling the playing field amongst charter and public schools.
Until charter schools and public schools receive identical funding, treating them identically will never be fair. If charter schools are really interested in living up to their public label, they should use their excess wealth to support their cash-strapped neighbors.