For years Donna Felix kept her two sons, Deion and Andre, on the waiting list for Explore Charter School in Brooklyn, New York. Deion and Andre attended first a private school, then a public school, as their names remained on Explore’s list — along with the names of more than 3,000 other kids hoping to be accepted for one of the 15 or so spots open for transfer students each year. For most of these students, charter schools offered the only alternative to a failing public school in their district and an unaffordable private school. Felix and her sons were the lucky ones.
“I had heard about charter schools from a friend and how good they are, so I put my kids’ names on the list,” Felix tells me. “After years, miraculously, they were called.”
At Explore — which teaches students from kindergarten to eighth grade — Felix found exactly what she was looking for: a publicly funded, individualized education that helps children succeed and keeps parents informed.
However, charter schools are being threatened by New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio.
In New York, there are over 70,000 students in charter schools, and over 60 percent of the city’s 183 charter schools are co-located — meaning that they occupy underused or unused space in traditional district schools on a rent-free basis. While co-location has caused some tension between students of the different schools occupying the same space, the policy allows charter schools to survive despite New York’s expensive real-estate market.
Though the specifics of de Blasio’s education policy remain murky, he is considering both putting a moratorium on co-location and charging rent for charter schools that are already co-located. De Blasio has assured people that he wants to charge rent only to those schools that can afford it, but some worry that the mayor’s definition of “afford” may be different from the schools’. Others worry that his call to “focus” on traditional public schools will leave charter schools in the lurch.
About 35 percent of Explore Charter School’s budget went for rent when it opened in 2002, Explore CEO and founder Morty Ballen tells me. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg began allowing co-location for charters the following year, Ballen moved Explore into unused district-school space and saw big changes. “All that money that was going to rent, we could pour that into more services for students, more enrichment services for students. That was one of the biggest changes,” he says.
With the extra money, Explore was able to hire separate teachers for gym, art, and music, where before they could only afford one teacher for all three subjects, Ballen says. “That was a really obvious, quick change we could make.”
As a rule, Ballen runs his schools on the same amount of money per pupil as all other public schools in New York. “We want charter legislation to be legislation that is replicable,” he says. “We want to demonstrate that we can do it on the public dollar.”
And the results have been impressive. The Explore network grew from one to four schools in only four years. They now serve around 1,600 students, 99 percent of whom are African-American or Hispanic and 83 percent of whom qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Last year, every graduating eighth-grader (all of whom were initially accepted to Explore by lottery) went to a college-prep high school.
For charter schools in general, the results are less striking but still notable. According to NYC Department of Education numbers crunched by the New York City Charter School Center — an independent nonprofit organization that supports the founding and growth of charter schools — 79 percent of charter schools had higher proficiency rates among students in math than their district-school peers. In English, 54 percent of charter schools had a higher proficiency rate than district schools.
What makes charter schools different is not the students or the money, but the philosophy. “We want to serve exactly the same kids as traditional district schools, but we want to have freedoms around how we use time and how we use resources and human capital,” Ballen tells me. Most charter schools do not have union contracts and don’t need to follow the local and citywide micro-regulations that govern other public schools, allowing them much more latitude to tailor teaching to student and parent needs. “Our goal is not to pull kids from district schools; our goal is to give parents another option,” Ballen says.
Keeping this option from New York parents — or even limiting the expansion of this option to other families — can harm children.
For Felix and her sons, life changed with Explore. Though Deion had struggled in a private school that the family couldn’t afford and a public school that was simply too big, Explore brought him up to grade level. “They did everything, and they really helped my son where no one else did,” Felix tells me. “If he had not gone to the charter school he would not have succeeded.” And when Felix was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 while Andre was applying to high schools, Explore teachers drove him to open houses and helped him apply. “They went above and beyond the call of duty,” Felix says.
De Blasio’s education policies, by targeting charter schools, threaten this success. Nonetheless, Ballen trusts that charter schools will remain. “I can’t imagine that the tens of thousands of students that are in charter schools that are co-located will be told they no longer have schools to go to,” he said. However, that hasn’t stopped him from doing “some back-of-the-envelope calculations, thinking, ‘What if we do have to pay rent?’”
What parents and educators involved in charter schools want de Blasio to know is that school choice is not a zero-sum game. That’s why in October 17,000 parents, teachers, and students marched on City Hall advocating that de Blasio (not yet elected then, but the presumptive next mayor) treat charter schools the same as public schools and not charge them rent. “The main point is that charter schools are public schools and our students deserve access to public facilities,” Ballen said. “It’s very simple from where I sit.”
It seems the issue is not so simple for de Blasio.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.