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Commentary By Charles Upton Sahm

New York's Charters Are Still Desperate for Space

Cities, Education New York City, Pre K-12

The de Blasio administration hasn't done nearly enough to help them set up shop

Last week, the city's Panel for Education Policy approved seven charter school colocations, providing them space in public school buildings. That brings the total number of charter colocations okayed to 21 this year — double the average during the previous four years of the de Blasio administration. This increase is a welcome change, but the city could still be doing more to find room for charters.

In a new Manhattan Institute report, I examine the de Blasio administration's record regarding charter colocations, the extent of available space for charters in underutilized public school buildings, and steps the city might take to find room for charters.

Charter schools have become an important part of public education in New York City. While enrollment in district schools is virtually unchanged from a decade ago, at over 1 million students, charter school enrollment has grown from 15,545 students in 2006-07 to 114,000 students (in 227 schools) this year.

Access to facilities, however, is a major impediment to future charter growth.

While Mayor Bloomberg championed charter schools and accelerated their growth via colocation — offering the open-by-lottery, privately managed, publicly funded schools free space in a city known for expensive real estate — Mayor de Blasio pledged to curtail the practice early in his administration.

Then, in April 2014, the state Legislature passed a law requiring the city to offer rental assistance to any new charter denied space in public school buildings so that they could access private facilities.

According to the Department of Education, since January 2014, the city has received 161 requests for space from new or expanding charter schools. It has denied 111 (69%) of these requests and approved 50 (31%). Of the 111, 107 have successfully appealed and are eligible for lease assistance. Currently, 63 schools receive lease assistance of about $4,300 per student.

In the last five years of the Bloomberg administration, 150 charter colocation space requests were approved (averaging 30 per year). In the first five years of the de Blasio administration, 59 colocations were approved (averaging 12 per year). The de Blasio administration has granted more charter colocation requests, but mostly for the expansion of existing charter schools. Only 18 new charters have been provided space.

In fact, 12 of the 14 new charters opening next year will be in private space. An additional seven charters were authorized to open next year but will delay opening, partly because of facilities issues.

Is there room for more charters in public school buildings? An analysis of the DOE's "Enrollment, Capacity & Utilization Report" over the past three years indicates that more charters could be accommodated in underutilized public school buildings, especially in school districts where charters are seeking space and where the need for better options is greatest.

There are 133 buildings that have had more than 300 empty seats (the city-defined threshold for siting a new school) every year for the past three years; 63 of these buildings have had more than 500 empty seats every year.

In districts where new charters hope to open in the next two years, 60 buildings have had at least 300 empty seats for the past three years; 26 buildings have had at least 500 empty seats.

School siting is complicated. The DOE is phasing schools into some of these buildings. Others cannot accommodate new schools. But some could.

Charter schools are public schools. The best of them are improving the life outcomes for thousands of New York City students. For these reasons alone, charters should be offered space in underutilized public school buildings whenever possible.

A more pragmatic reason the city should try harder to find public space for charters is the rapidly growing cost of the rental-assistance program. City taxpayers will pay $62 million this coming fiscal year for charters to access private space; that cost will escalate if the city continues to decline more than two-thirds of charter colocation requests. (The subsidy is also no panacea for charters: finding and financing adequate private facilities in New York's complicated and expensive real-estate market is challenging.)

Bottom line: What's needed is more active and honest engagement between the DOE and the charter sector, and a mind-set that considers charters an integral part of an overall strategy to create more great seats for students in New York City public schools.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


Charles Sahm is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News