April 25, 2011
Do mom-and-pop charter schools get a raw deal when it comes to finding rent-free public space in New York City?
For many charter schools, the fight for space in public schools is a bruising one. In a column in the Sunday Times, writer Michael Winerip suggests that it’s that much worse for start-up charter schools that aren’t tied to charter networks or wealthy backers. The latter type, he argues, are able to open dozens of charter schools in public space all over the city. Meanwhile, a mom-and-pop charter school in Queens has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a privately-owned building when the city doesn’t give it space.
Is it a universal truth that the public school real estate hunt discriminates against start-ups? It’s not clear. The charter school Winerip mentions, Growing Up Green Charter, is one of only nine charter schools in all of Queens. Almost all of them are independent charter schools started by teachers or religious groups and most of them are in private space.
Home to some of the best traditional public schools in the city, Queens also has some of the most overcrowded schools, leaving little room for charter schools of any kind to squeeze in. Would the city’s charter school office find space for an Astoria branch of the Success Academy if CEO Eva Moskowitz asked? We don’t know yet.
What is known is that almost all of the barriers to entry are higher for mom-and-pop schools than they are for charters that are part of networks.
When networks decide to open new schools, they often select principals from within the network and pay them a salary while helping them write applications. Start-up schools founded by teachers, parents, or community groups don’t have this luxury. In reporting about a start-up charter incubator program, I found that it’s common for mom-and-pop charter founders to spend a year writing the application while holding down a second job or living on savings. With less experience writing charter school applications, they’re in greater need of consultants’ help, but less able to afford it. And without this help and without data from other successful schools, they run a high risk of charter authorizers not wanting to gamble on them.
There’s also the philanthropy gap. A study of charter school philanthropy by Kim Gittleson found that schools tied to charter management organizations took in at least $1,734 per pupil in philanthropic dollars in 2009. That year, independent schools brought in $994 per pupil — a $740 difference.