Thousands of charter school advocates in New York rallied in the capital city of Albany last week to protest a decision by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to rescind a handful of agreements that allowed charters and other schools to share space, rent-free, with other public schools in his city.
Although the recently inaugurated mayor decided to move forward with a majority of the co-location agreements under his jurisdiction, he denied space to two charter schools set to open next fall and withdrew an agreement with one existing middle school. All three are part of the Success Academy charter school network, a city-based network of 22 schools run by Eva S. Moskowitz, an outspoken critic of Mr. de Blasio.
The city’s action, which will affect about 700 charter school students in the 1.1 million-student school system, makes good on Mayor de Blasio’s campaign promise to revisit the co-location policies of his predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, under whom the charter school community in New York grew from 22 schools in 2003 to 159 by 2012-13.
During his campaign last year, Mr. de Blasio vowed to review the dozens of co-location agreements for both charter and district-run schools that were approved near the end of the Bloomberg administration.
Critics of the co-location policy have said that the agreements force district-run schools to cut programs because of lack of space and create rivalries between the regular schools and the charter schools that move in, sometimes pouring their own funds into renovations and improvements that make students attending the regular schools feel like second-class citizens.
Of 49 co-location proposals, Mr. de Blasio’s team announced decisions on 45, deferring four proposals for schools scheduled to open in 2015-16.
Thirty-six of the plans were allowed to proceed (although one was revised), including 14 proposals for charter schools, five of which are part of the Success Academy network. The administration rescinded agreements with a total of nine schools—three charters and six district schools. Alternative plans were announced for three of the district schools, while the other three were nixed altogether.
Reasons for Rescinding
In a memo announcing the decisions, the city’s department of education said it focused on rescinding co-location agreements for schools that would mix elementary and high school campuses, schools that had fewer than 250 students, and schools that would require significant construction.
“We’ve said that we would have a standard of fairness that requires us to say if a charter school happens to be well resourced, that we’re going to ask them to help us out,” Mayor de Blasio said at a Feb. 28 press conference. “And if they don’t happen to be well resourced, we’re not going to charge them a dime in rent.” The Success Academy schools are considered a well-resourced charter organization with its leader, Ms. Moskowitz, coming under fire for her $475,000 salary in 2011-12, which is about twice as much as the city’s schools chancellor.
One major sticking point for the charter school community was Mayor de Blasio’s decision to end the co-location agreement with Harlem 4, a Success Academy charter middle school that has been operating since 2008. On the 2013 state mathematics exam, Harlem 4’s students performed in the top 1 percent of all schools in the state.
“To revoke a charter that had been in place since 2008 from a charter school that had performed so well on the state’s math and science tests is unfortunate and one of the worst-case scenarios that is coming to play,” said Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Andrew Malone, the principal of the 194-student Harlem 4, called his response to the decision “a mix of deep heartbreak and also anger and confusion.”
Because the enrollment process for middle schools for the upcoming school year has already been completed, most of the students now attending Harlem 4 would be forced to attend their zoned middle schools if the school closes, he said. That is not a good option for those families, said Mr. Malone, since the district-run schools in the neighborhood have single-digit passing rates on state exams.
Joining the Rally
In response to the de Blasio administration’s action, Ms. Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of the Success Academy network, closed schools March 4 in order to bus students to the pro-charter rally in Albany. She called it a “civic field trip” and promised to hold classes on the bus. Ms. Moskowitz also closed schools last October for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of charter schools following Mayor de Blasio’s election to office.
The Albany charter school rally, which drew thousands of supporters, coincided with a long-planned event at the state capitol organized by Mayor de Blasio with the intention of drumming up support for his plan to impose a new tax on wealthy New Yorkers to expand prekindergarten and after-school programs in city schools.
Faced with the competing rallies, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who, like Mr. de Blasio, is a Democrat—joined the pro-charter group and pledged to “save charter schools.”
One faction of the charter school community in New York City, however, is taking a more moderate approach to the new administration’s moves. The currently unnamed group, which has the support of 34 charter school organizations that operate 43 such schools, condemned the pro-charter rally, saying it “is not the right approach at this time.”
Richard Berlin, the executive director of Harlem RBI charter school, which is a part of the coalition, told Education Week that while he was in “broad agreement” with those marching in support of charter schools, the day had been long set aside to promote universal prekindergarten. He said that “we felt it should be kept that way, both for the sake of supporting the agenda and ensuring that charters were not seen as undermining the very important goals … championed by the mayor.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C.'s Charter School Debate Moves to State Capitol