Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.
Charter Schools and New York City Education Reform
New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has promised to reverse his predecessor’s policy of providing facilities rent-free to charter schools. His reasons? First, charter schools have financial advantages, including money from foundations. Second, teachers and principals in traditional public schools are annoyed by having to share facilities with charter schools.
This proposal, and the reasons behind it, are big steps backwards. It draws an arbitrary line between two groups of schools that are both trying to serve the city’s kids. He’s suggesting that it is okay to spend different amounts of public money on a child, depending on what school she attends.
New York State’s charter funding policies are pretty good. A charter school gets almost as much state money per student as a district-run school does, with one exception: money for facilities. District-run schools don’t pay for their buildings, but charter schools do—except in New York City, where the district provides charter schools buildings. Former Chancellor of NYC Schools Joel Klein began this policy because given the high cost of real estate in New York City, rent payments can seriously limit what charter schools can do for their kids. Providing free facilities leveled the playing field, so that charter schools could use all their money on teaching and student services.
De Blasio’s proposal would upset this balance. Charter schools that have to pay rent will be less able to invest in innovation, serve their students, and put pressure on traditional schools to raise their game.
This is, of course, all about politics. In New York, unions and elected officials are fanning resentment toward charter schools, performance-based accountability, and other elements of the Klein-Bloomberg strategy. (See my related article, Bloomberg's Education Plan Is Working: Don't Ditch It, in The Atlantic.) But they are not creating the resentment; it was already there, for example against the Department of Education for hard tactics on school closings and against many charter schools for refusing to admit students who transfer in mid-year.
Most of all, middle-class parents who have paid to fix up school buildings (just one source of unaccounted-for private funding for traditional schools that reform opponents don’t want to talk about) resent having charter schools forced into their facilities. There are always two sides in such affairs: charter schools need places to operate, and many existing buildings were far from fully utilized; but school-co-location often forces incumbent schools to make difficult changes, and charter leaders haven’t always been considerate.
Resentment is a huge political resource, and nothing can stop politicians from using it. Transformation of any big school system will generate a lot of resentment; reform leaders can only try to avoid it reaching a critical mass.
City leaders in New York have done a pretty good job managing resentment over the past decade. But their current plight suggests three lessons for reform leaders and supporters elsewhere:
The first, if the least exciting, is that a stable reform needs good accounting. Facilities are not free, and their costs should be included in reports on school spending. It would be hard for anyone to claim that charter schools have “more money” if all the funding streams for traditional schools were obvious. Leaders of portfolio-style reforms should get their districts to provide real-dollar reports on how district schools are getting and spending their money. If this accounting included the market-rate rental value of facilities used by traditional public schools, it could weaken resistance to putting charter schools into under-used school buildings.
The second lesson is that charter schools need to be more transparent about philanthropic funding and how it is used. To date, reformers haven’t been able to effectively respond to claims, like de Blasio’s, that charter schools get lots of extra money—which some do and some don’t. It is particularly important to distinguish support for one-time purchases and start-up costs from continuing operating subsidies. Some charter schools might still look richly funded, but most won’t. Charter schools that anticipate permanent operating subsidies will have a particular problem, and might need to be especially open to sharing what they have with children in neighboring public schools.
The third lesson is that reformers—not just city leaders but the supporting foundations and nonprofits—need to downplay the rhetoric about competition between charter schools and districts, and emphasize the common goal of improving the lives of children. The goal of charter schools is to expand the range of high-quality options in the community, but they are not the only ones working on that. Reformers don’t need to shy away from the point that if charter schools prove successful they should educate more and more students. But reformers do not have to start by saying they hope to put other schools out of business.
None of these actions will prevent opponents from trying to characterize charter schools as part of a plutocrats’ conspiracy, or trying to hamstring them via funding cuts or regulation. But they can reduce the misunderstandings and resentments that predispose voters to accept anti-reform rhetoric.
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