James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center – and a longtime charter school expert in New York – takes a look at the NAACP lawsuit over charter schools there:
Now six weeks after the New York NAACP joined a teachers union lawsuit to stop charter school co-locations, charter leaders still find it surreal and sad to be on the other side of that storied organization—especially over children’s access to education. For anyone trying to make sense of the dueling rhetoric, I’d suggest stepping back to review some overlooked facts.
1. The space-sharing plans that prompted the lawsuit were never binding.
The lawsuit targets a set of building utilization plans (BUPs) which the NYC Department of Education (DOE) draws up whenever charter and district schools share buildings. These BUPs allocate the number of classrooms each school gets and they also propose how other spaces—gyms, cafeterias, and so on—should be shared.
I say “propose” because that’s all the BUPs do. The actual arrangements for sharing the building’s common spaces are worked out, by consensus, through a committee made up of the principals in the building, plus one teacher and one parent from each school. (In rare cases of solid disagreement, the DOE arbitrates.) These committees are free to refer to the BUPs, but also free to ignore them—as often happens. In other words, the lawsuit isn’t about how schools will actually share the space but merely one way they could share space.
2. The City was already revising its co-location plans before the lawsuit was filed.
The BUPs that were issued in January and February did include some proposals that did not divide space in strict proportion to schools’ relative population sizes. By the time the lawsuit was filed in May, however, the City was already revising the BUPs to be rigorously and scrupulously proportionate. The lawsuit went forward anyway and continues even though these revised BUPs have now been approved.
3. The lawsuit only alleges one instance of disproportionality in the new plans.
Out of 15 co-locations in the lawsuit, there is only one case that the NAACP says is still disproportionate under the city’s revised proposals. In that particular building, the district school’s lunch periods would be were spread out over a longer time, which meant that on rainy days its gym time would be more curtailed by indoor recess, compared to the charter school.
On the other hand, the lawsuit includes at least one case where the proposed plan gives the charter school a disproportionately small amount of time in the various shared spaces. Moreover, there are four co-locations that the NAAC P and the UFT don’t even bother to make allegations against, but that didn’t stop them from including them in the lawsuit.
4. Most of the lawsuit’s complaints are about common, citywide challenges.
The bulk of the lawsuit’s claims are not about inequitable sharing, but about the less than perfect conditions co-locations sometimes create. Very early lunch hours, elementary and secondary schools together, and generally tight quarters are all less than optimal, to be sure but they are hardly unique to the buildings named in the lawsuit. These kinds of conditions are common throughout New York City, in the hundreds of co-locations not involving any charter school—or any lawsuit. One need look no further than the NAACP’s own legal papers which show that in one building at issue, lunch hour starts at 10:15 a.m. though there is no charter school yet co-located there. These conditions are also common in many buildings where there is a single school but more students enrolled than the building ideally can hold. Yet both in co-located buildings and in simply just crowded buildings, many of these schools find ways to work for children.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the lawsuit from proceeding or even making arguments that are absurdly self-contradictory. At one building, the NAACP argues that adding a charter school will cause overcrowding. Yet at the same time the NAACP argues that the charter school shouldn’t be allowed in because it will stop a district school in the building from expanding! Similarly in yet another case, it decries the fact that having the charter school co-locate will mean that the school can’t accept more than 80 kids who live outside the district. It would be funny if it hadn’t left so many families in limbo.
5. It’s not too late for the national NAACP to lead in the right direction.
Away from glaring cameras and litigating lawyers, NAACP leaders should meet with each of the remaining charter schools that is targeted by the lawsuit. They’ll see what I’ve seen: charter school leaders revere the NAACP, for starters. They didn’t write the BUPs. They’re committed to fairness and want to be good neighbors, sharing facilities equitably and also sharing best practices (in both directions).
Everyone understands that the NAACP and the teachers union are longtime allies. But I believe that if the NAACP reaches out to these school leaders and takes the time to talk to them, they’ll find common ground and move to withdraw their claims against many if not all of the schools—as they’ve already done in three instances. That could be a blow for reasonableness, an end to this sad and divisive chapter, and perhaps the start of a more thoughtful dialogue about public education and civil rights.
James Merriman is CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.