Charter School Co-Location Creating Tensions in NYC

Published March 15, 2010

The high costs of building space in New York City fall hard on new charter schools, which have limited funds to pay rent. so the city’s Department of Education has been helping charters cut costs by giving away space in existing public-school buildings, including buildings currently occupied by public schools.

“Co-location” arrangements, as the placements of two or more schools into one building are known, save the participating charter school an average of $2,712 per student in facility, utility, and school safety costs, according to a report by New York City’s Independent Budget Office. The charter school pays a rental fee for the building space instead of purchasing it outright, and it gets free building-maintenance and janitorial services.

“For some charter schools, it’s the only way they could survive financially,” said Michael Regnier, associate director of policy and advocacy for the New York City Charter Schools Center, a nonprofit organization supporting charter schools.

Fewer Rules, Less Money

Charter schools operate with greater autonomy than district public schools, but the price of that autonomy is less funding. Whereas a district public school is subsidized by its school district and by the state, a charter school’s funding comes from the state only.

Co-location narrows the charter school funding gap. According to the Independent Budget Office, district public schools received $16,678 per student in public support in the 2008-2009 school year. Charter schools received $13,661 per student in public support outside of a public school building and $16,373 if housed inside a public building—differences of $3,017 per student and $305 per student, respectively.

Currently 51 of the city’s 99 charter schools co-locate with district public schools, according to Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Education. Other charter schools co-locate into the buildings of existing charter schools.

Using Empty Space

Co-location not only saves charter schools money but also saves the city’s education system space.

Zarin-Rosenfeld explains the education department co-locates charter schools in sites that are underutilized, in schools that have space to spare.

“In many districts, some schools are overcrowded while others are underutilized. Co-location is one important method to ensure that all of our capacity is being put to best use,” he said.

It amounts to finding the best deal for both the students and the schools as a whole, he says.

“We’re creating better learning environments for kids while being fiscally responsible,” said Zarin-Rosenfeld.

Crowding Creating Tensions

But while co-location benefits charter schools’ bottom lines, it also stirs fiery resentment among some public-school teachers and parents of public-school students unhappy with another school moving its student body into their school buildings.

“Schools that are underutilized can get used to having these extra classrooms. You do feel a loss when the new charter school comes in,” said Regnier.

There have been confrontations over building space. A high-profile conflict played out on February 24 when the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved a proposal to move 16 schools—including 13 charter schools—into already occupied school buildings in Harlem, Inwood, Chelsea, and the Lower East Side.

The panel reached its decision after a lengthy, raucous hearing packed by parents of charter-school students and those whose children were attending the district public schools targeted for co-location. The former group came to plead for school building space for their children, the latter to decry the possible loss of space their children might suffer.

Mayor’s Support Crucial

The charter-school side prevailed because of the support of two key figures: Education Chancellor Joel Klein, who sits on the panel as a nonvoting member; and Klein’s boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor appoints eight of the panel’s 13 voting members, and Bloomberg had made sure to appoint pro-charter-school panel members.

“It’s a mayor-controlled panel, and the approval of the schools themselves had been done by Klein. He [Klein] had the votes to make it happen,” said Peter Murphy, director of policy and communications for the New York Charter Schools Association.

Most co-locations happen without major protests from public-school teachers and parents, Regnier says.

“In most cases it works out just fine. It’s misleading to put too much attention on a few cases where there are large protests,” he said. “Every child gets a roof over their head.”

Widespread Practice

Co-location isn’t just a New York City practice. Many of Los Angeles’ charter schools share buildings with each other.

J. C. Huizenga, CEO of National Heritage Academies, which operates charter schools in six states, including New York, said individual charter schools often find they complement each other well if they pair up in one building.

“One school might have an artistic inclination, while the other might be more science- and math-oriented, but they co-locate to share the same core curriculum,” said Huizenga.

But Regnier says New York needs to find long-term solutions as charter schools keep growing. The city’s Independent Budget Office report notes 21 new charter schools opened during the 2008-2009 school year, bringing the citywide total to 99. Moreover, new charter schools’ student populations tend to increase quickly.

Finding space for all those new schools and new students poses a challenge, one that host public schools might make even more difficult.

“Ultimately, this is going to start to pinch,” said Regnier.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.