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Commentary By Charles Upton Sahm

Success Academy Needs and Deserves More Public School Space

Education, Education, Cities Pre K-12, Pre K-12, New York City

New York City’s charter schools bested district proficiency rates by a wide margin on the 2017 state exams: 14 percentage points in math and eight in English. Economically disadvantaged charter students outscored their district peers by 19 points in math and 12 points in English.

“It’s time to do the right thing and make room for charters.”

Currently, the de Blasio administration is sitting on some two dozen charter space requests for the 2018-19 school year, including six from Success Academy, where students not only closed the socioeconomic achievement gap but reversed it, scoring higher on the exams than students in wealthy suburbs. It’s time to do the right thing and make room for charters.

One would think that the de Blasio administration, committed to equalizing opportunity in an economically and racially divided city, would be doing everything it can to help these schools. However, in the three years since the state passed a law requiring the city to either co-locate charters in public buildings or provide rental assistance for private space, the city has denied the vast majority of requests for colocation. As a result, these charters have been forced to navigate New York’s complicated and expensive commercial real-estate market.

To be fair, the way the process works, the city has to formally “deny” a charter’s request for space before it can offer rental assistance, so the denials include some charters that have expressed a preference for rental assistance. Still, charter school leaders say that the administration could be making more of an effort to find room for charters in public school buildings.

A recent analysis by the pro-charter organization Families for Excellent Schools, using the city’s own school utilization data, finds that there is space available in public school buildings for charters. According to the FES report, there are 112 “chronically underutilized” school buildings across the city that have had more than 300 empty classroom seats (the city-defined threshold for siting a school) every year for the past four years. Sixty-eight of those buildings are in districts where charters are applying for space.

Previous FES analysis shines a light on clusters of underutilized buildings and suggests that consolidating a few nearby schools with shrinking enrollments could open up thousands of seats for charters. Although the city’s public school system as a whole is at 96% capacity, the utilization rate in the 14 districts where charters are requesting space is 88%. In fact, five districts in Brooklyn had utilization rates below 80%, including district 16 (Bedford-Stuyvesant) where the rate was just 53%.

The de Blasio administration disputes the FES analysis and says that it does not reflect the full picture of space in city buildings. School utilization is complex and many principals argue that the city’s “blue book” data doesn’t accurately reflect all the space needed to properly run a school. (The City Council has a working group on school facilities that is set to issue a report this fall.)

“It’s hard to dispute that the city could do more include charters in the facilities picture.”

FES may overstate the case somewhat — just because a building has 300 open seats does not mean it can accommodate a new school — but it’s hard to dispute that the city could do more include charters in the facilities picture.

One of the reasons the Bloomberg administration was able to find room for charters in public school buildings is that it closed over 150 struggling schools. Thus far, the de Blasio administration has been reluctant to close schools, but Chancellor Carmen Fariña has noted that shrinking schools do reach a point at which they are no longer viable and should be consolidated. In fact, the city has closed around 20 schools over the past three years, including a few charters, for either low performance or low enrollment. Often, both.

The relationship between the de Blasio administration and the charter sector seems to have turned a corner. As part of the discussion over mayoral control this summer, the de Blasio administration agreed to a few minor pro-charter policy shifts that touched on the facilities issue. Afterward, the leaders of 14 charter school networks, including Success’s Eva Moskowitz, signed a letter thanking the mayor and urging a “new chapter” of cooperation and collaboration.

Here’s hoping a new chapter has truly arrived and the city will do everything it can to make room for charters in city school buildings. Charters are having a real impact, particularly for low-income children of color. They deserve equal access to facilities.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


Charles Sahm is the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News