Mayor Bill de Blasio should waive rent for charter schools but ask for something else in return: transparency

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio cancelled plans for three new charter schools to use rent-free space in public schools for next year.

De Blasio did campaign on the promise to charge rent for charter schools that shared space with public schools. His decision last week left most of the 49 other charter contracts untouched, and only targeted Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, a New York city-based network that grew to 22 schools under the Bloomberg administration. Two of the new schools were proposed by Success Academy, which was also involved in the third school’s expansion.

In response, Moskowitz and hundreds of parents, children and teachers from her schools descended on Albany to protest De Blasio’s decision.  Moskowitz has claimed that the children who were to attend the proposed schools will be left “educationally homeless.

It’s hard to fault De Blasio when he insists that many charters, contrary to their claims, can afford to pay rent. For example, Kipp Academy is a national network that received $ 160 million in grants over four years. But it’s seven schools in New York City are rent free. But De Blasio has also singled out Moskowitz in the past. In a public forum last year, he said there’s “no way in hell Eva Moskowitz should get free rent [for her schools], okay?”

A healthy skepticism of charter schools — privately run institutions that accept taxpayer’s money — is necessary. But an outright battle may affect the children attending these schools. Charter schools, 183 of them in all, educate hundreds of thousands of children from poor families.

Their popularity is the symptom of an ailing public education system. New York’s public schools can be fixed, yes, but waging such a public battle against charter schools, or Eva Moskowitz in particualr, might not be the best way to go forward. Instead, De Blasio should consider what he can demand from charter schools in return for waiving rent for those that exist in public school buildings.?

Charter schools exist in a limbo between private and public space, subject to a mixture of laws and regulations on either end. It’s not always clear if they can be held accountable for their internal policies on curriculum or discipline. Nor does it make sense that they aren’t subjected to a public audit, given that they run their schools with public money, often including the waiver of rent.

Can De Blasio, then, “incentivize” the rent waiver? The charter schools want something that Mr. de Blasio is wonderfully poised to give – a waiver of millions of dollars. Why not use that to get more out of them? Why not insisting on more regulation in policies concerning admission, suspension or expulsion of students.

Success Academy especially has drawn flak for its high suspension rates. More troubling is the fact that the charter school network has been accused of pushing out children with special needs. Rather than impose rent on charter schools in public school buildings, De Blasio should impose the same regulations that govern public schools. And use this opportunity to regulate charter schools as a whole.

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