When Free Rent Isn’t Free

By James Merriman

Of the 136 charter schools operating in New York City, 88 are located in district school space.  Because charter schools in New York State do not generally receive any capital/facility funding, the district has had a policy of not charging rent.*

It is hard to exaggerate the effect of this policy. More than any other factor, it has allowed the charter school sector to expand in a city where real estate is both its lifeblood and a blood sport.  Without district space, charter schools face daunting hurdles, including carving out up to 20% of their operating funds to pay the rent. Even then, facilities can be far from ideal; I’ve often seen a charter leader in private space marvel at the luxuries the most neglected and old public school buildings provide.

Access to district space has fueled the rapid growth of charter schools in NYC. But it isn’t truly rent-free. What charter schools in district space don’t pay in money, they pay in the autonomy they give up.

This loss of autonomy comes in two flavors. First and most obviously, charter schools “co-located” in district space must live by the district’s building rules. Security and maintenance services are delivered through the district; if they fall short, good luck trying to change anything. Other rules constrain space use when the district is out of session.  And then there are the thousand little annoyances, like the class-interrupting loud-speaker announcements that some district schools tolerate. (“Teachers, remember to stop by the office before you file your leave forms.”)

The second kind of lost autonomy is equally important but almost never discussed.  Reliance on the district for space has kept charter schools silent about the problems they see in the district, whether due to negotiations inherent in obtaining this free space, the fear of losing it, or the sheer exhaustion of pursuing it. No matter what type of decisions district officials make, charter schools and their supporters (including us) often remain too quiet.

When the district’s system of school “progress reports” stumbled through years of changing methodology, charter school voices were muted. We didn’t say much when the district officials began closing district schools for poor performance before it established an accountability framework. Imagine if a charter school authorizer had tried the same thing! Nor did we point out that, until very recently, the district gave tenure to almost every teacher (despite having the full legal power to be far more selective).

Charter schools have a critical role to play in challenging the practices of the public school system when they are not working.  An illustration of this can perhaps be found in the public personae of Eva Moskowitz.   Prior to her becoming a charter operator, whose schools are dependent on the district for space, Eva regularly challenged the district as Chair of the City Council’s Education Committee.  Her actions became the stuff of NYC political legend, including calling attention to systemic malaise and neglect by holding a hearing on the lack of toilet paper in school buildings.  And while her zeal has not mellowed, her target is narrower.  Rather than using her successes, in the form of six schools with world-class test scores, as a prod for reform, she and her staff spend way too much of their time being pre-occupied with getting space for her schools.  The pressing necessity of having a roof over one’s head is not just Eva’s concern, but an urgent priority for all charter school leaders.

Thus, one result of charter schools’ need for space is that 1.1 million children in New York City have lost some of their loudest and best voices for pushing district reform.  Instead of calling out the district when it does something off-target, we generally keep our heads down and talk quietly amongst ourselves.  Third-party organizations like the Charter Center can help change that, and we do.  But the distortion will probably continue as long as charters lack a legal right to district space or funding to replace it.

To be clear: I believe charter schools should continue to have access to district space, and we will advocate for it with everything we’ve got.  But they also need facility funding, so they can judge for themselves whether free rent comes at too high a cost.

*The district also has a policy of not giving leases, meaning charters have few legal rights to stay for the long term.

2 Replies to “When Free Rent Isn’t Free”

  1. I think the focus of this article is all wrong. You are probably right that charter schools sharing space complain less about the decrepit state of the facilities, but they spend lots of $$$ (at least Harlem Success Academies do) on ensuring that their spaces are pristine so they don’t really have an incentive to complain, it’s not as if they’re suffering, too. I think that’s a bigger factor in why no one speaks up. What a terrible choice to use Eva M and Harlem Success as an example…everyone knows that with Eva’s major philanthropic dollars she could afford to put her schools in the Trump towers but instead insists on waging epic space battles that displace people for the political messaging motive instead. Also, there are charters that have there own space so the author of this post could just look at that sample to see if “free rent” really comes at such a high cost.

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