New York Charter School Decision: 5 Questions with James Merriman

By Emmeline Zhao

NEW YORK -- More than 200 New York City students are left without a school for the next academic year as a result of Mayor Bill de Blasio's decision Thursday to terminate space-sharing agreements for nine charter and district schools. The reversals represent just a handful of the 49 co-locations that were approved last fall by exiting Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but are a clear signal of the mayor's views about charters and especially high-profile charter school networks.

Three of the axed charter schools are part of the Success Academy school network, founded by former city council member Eva Moskowitz in 2006. Success Academies operate 22 schools in New York City and generally yield favorable results on standardized tests and are popular with parents although advocates criticize its discipline policies. Just one of the schools affected by de Blasio's decision is currently operating, the rest are new schools slated to open this fall.

The mayor's office said the decisions were based on four criteria: the co-location agreement's effect on special education programs, whether the facility's student body would be fewer than 250, logistical issues, and whether the co-location requires high school and elementary students to share space. Charter schools are considered public schools and are publicly funded but operated independently of the school system.

While de Blasio has said that his administration will make arrangements to relocate displaced students, charter leaders say the decision lowers the quality of education available, especially because the decision was made after the first round of middle school selection for city students.

RealClearEducation's Emmeline Zhao spoke with NYC Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, who has worked with charter schools in the city in a variety of capacities including as their authorizer, to get his take on the issue.

What was your reaction? How did the mayor's decision compare to what you were expecting?

It's incredibly disappointing for the parents, particularly of the school that's closing. For those kids the decision came very late, missing the middle school deadline and it effectively means they won't have a high quality choice to go to, certainly nothing like the school they're in now.

We were hoping for zero reversals, of course. In terms of actual expectation, I think it was lower than what I had initially expected when the administration came into office, but given that they failed to put in place a process and failed to make a timely decision -- this is incredibly untimely and way too late -- think that it was probably on par with my expectations. I hope as they review the decision they take into account the lack of quality seats left available to students now and reverse their recommendation

Why do charter leaders say this is putting politics over education?

If you look at the criteria they're using, they're on the face valid. But, I don't see any details to lead me to conclude that the administration is correct. In terms of high school seats, there are two arguments you could make: First, elementary students shouldn't be in high schools for their own good, or it somehow harms high school students -- I don't think there's any evidence that that's true. The other is not taking away high school seats and the physical infrastructure the high school building provides.

I think you have different priorities. To the extent that you might say the decision was political, I don't think the mayor or chancellor helped themselves in refuting those claims by the rhetoric used. I don't think it was political, but given his use yesterday of the word "abhorrent" in describing the Bloomberg co-location proposal, or saying that the school that is currently there should get priority, you just wonder whether he would use that talking and thinking about immigrants. The answer is "no." He wouldn't say immigrants should get priority and be put behind those who have been here longer. It's that kind of rhetoric that makes people wonder.

There wasn't any transparency in whatever process they had. We still don't know. We know the criteria, but not the process. Not to sit with charter families, look them in the eye, and hear from both sides when you tout that you're all about the process doesn't breed trust. And the mayor's claim that they didn't have time: From September onwards, he effectively knew he was going to be mayor. He could have built a team, could have started looking at those and engaged parents on Jan. 2. He chose not to do so and therefore the mistrust that is bred in a closed process allows folks to put A and B together and decide it's political. I hope dearly it isn't, but given all the surrounding facts and circumstances, it's very easy for people to think so.

Do you believe charters deserve rent-free public space?

What I believe is that charters should get equity in funding, and that's not happening today. The mayor talks about charters not being given preference and fine, I don't want charters to have preference or to be treated preferably over district schools. But somehow, he never gets disturbed that we have some 50 schools sitting in private space that are badly underfunded compared to their district counterparts.

That double standard, to me, is incredibly striking and he simply doesn't seem to notice or care. As a result, two things are happening: Often those schools are in less-than-ideal and substandard space, certainly space that he wouldn't think of sending his own children to. Secondly, even to get that space, given the price of real estate and the fact that we don't get facility funding, we must increase the operating program to pay rent. If you don't have a revenue stream from the government and you are a public school, why should you pay that expense you don't get revenue for when the district does? We wouldn't ask a district to build buildings without revenue for it, and we shouldn't ask charters to pay rent when they don't get revenue for that.

We think the real gap, when you take into account the need of the charter to replace the real estate, the public resource the city has, in the private market, is probably in the $3,000-$4,000 range per child.

What do you say to community members who are upset about not having their co-location decisions reversed? They say their schools will be stripped of resources for charters that they don't need or want.

I'd say to them, your conversation isn't with me or with charter operators. It's with parents who are choosing the charter school. Those parents are your neighbors, your friends, and they're simply looking for a school that works for their child. And if charters are working for children, then they should be co-located. In terms of any harm to district schools, there's a lot of smoke, but no fire. There's no evidence that students are harmed academically in a district school. The fact is that after the cameras are put away and the press war is over, educators from both sides get together collaboratively, put politics aside, and understand that all the kids in the building are their common goal.

Co-location is the norm in New York City because it works. Only 8 percent of co-located schools are charters, the rest are traditional schools. Just 17 percent of co-locations involve charters. The majority of district schools are co-located, and most are co-located with other district schools. Nobody seems to get upset over those.

Going forward, what can be done about the decision?

I don't want to be insensitive or seem callous to the plight of the parents or students whose school is disappearing under their feet, but co-location, while an important policy tool, was necessarily limited probably by space constraints, and, in order to place more charters into district schools, you will need to close district schools that just aren't getting the job done. There are just not that many large, contiguous open spaces in public school buildings anymore. Therefore, I have always said that we need to move and get equal facility funding across all funding streams for charter schools. I'll be in Albany on Tuesday to talk to the governor and lawmakers about funding and the ability to provide pre-k, not just for charters, but for all kids.

The ultimate solution is equity in funding, not co-location. I think it's a good policy and should continue, but politically, for this mayor to embrace a policy of not just co-locating charters, but by having to close district schools that aren't achieving, isn't something in the cards. Certainly not in the next 2-3 years. Over time, the word "student achievement" will start to ring louder in this administration's policy purview. Right now, what you hear is "equity," "better schools," but you don't hear much about increasing student achievement. They'll have to deliver on that.

Charters need to chart an independent course and get equity funding across all funding streams, and those flow from Albany, not New York City.

 

Emmeline Zhao
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