March 4, 2010
The big questions about charter schools are not the real issue in current fights over co-location with traditional public schools. Charter schools with their own buildings are being left alone. Like most wars, the dispute is about territory, not policy. This is not about long-simmering disagreements about charters’ instructional strengths, whether they cream more able students, lack of services for English language learners and students with special needs, segregative effects, and other important if wonky questions. This is about real estate.
In its zeal to support charters and other small-school alternatives, the Bloomberg administration has opened the doors of neighborhood schools to entities without community roots, an imposition understandably resented by many already housed there. Though Department of Education capacity estimates tend to be wildly inflated and the space needs of current schools undervalued, there might very well be room for two or more coexisting programs in some buildings. But the mayor’s and chancellor’s heavy-handed actions, treating current occupants like squatters and shunting them aside in favor of preferred institutions, create unnecessary antagonism between students, parents, and administrators.
This resonates with the old New York story of class warfare engendered by developers and landlords clearing out tenants. In schools, issues of gentrification, perceived religious school encroachment on public school space, and redrawing of district and attendance boundaries have long set off political fireworks. There were only sparks when the DOE moved regular public schools into these spaces. But with charters, these sparks are fanned into flames because of their association with moneyed interests and managerial profiteering.
Whose school is it anyway? Charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, in her now infamous series of emails with the chancellor over space, argues it is the larger public’s schools, that previously sited schools have no more right to space than her Harlem Success chain of charter schools. While she’s right that public schools are not the exclusive domain of parents and teachers, her political argument is specious. What would this self-described “relentless” advocate for her own agenda do if her desks were heaped in a gym, as she did to the school furniture at PS 123? Even when establishing the highly segregated Eleanor Roosevelt High School for her former Upper East Side constituency, the one-and-only Moskowitz message was clear: Whatever Eva wants, Eva gets, no matter what principles (or principals) get rolled in the process. It is Moskowitz, herself, who ramped up the military metaphor with her calls for “armies of parents” to lobby on HSA’s behalf.
With this attitude by charter operators and the Mayor, attempts at conciliation and legislative solution have failed. Even calls by some charter parents to end divisions over the issue have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. Legal strategies by the UFT and parents are now in the offing. But a quick-fix administrative strategy, one that resuscitates our flagging separation of powers, remains to be fully investigated.
While the chancellor has discretionary power over siting regular DOE schools subject to new procedural requirements, his power over district-sponsored and non-district-sponsored charter locations should be contested. Charters are publicly funded but privately-organized entities. Their right to occupy public space is arguably regulated by current city contracting mechanisms. To my knowledge, the comptroller’s office has never subjected the DOE to these rules which, at a minimum, require notice and competitive bidding or challengeable reasons for exemption. While DOE-sponsored charters are a gray area, those without DOE sponsorship would seem no different than any other not-for-profit seeking public space through requisite arms-length dealing. The Comptroller is responsible for monitoring, regulating, and approving these contracts.
Simply put, there are rules. Public space, as Moskowitz argues, is public. But the Mayor is not free to give away public space to non-competitive private entities just because he likes the cut of their jib. The substantial subsidy for these private operations revealed last week by the Independent Budget Office should subject them to substantial scrutiny. State legislation mandates public payment of charter expenses on a per pupil basis. But the city’s discretionary decision to pay many charters’ capital costs, as well as other potential subsidies, requires the comptroller’s investigation.