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City Council moves to regulate city’s placement of charter schools

City Council members today moved to regulate the process of placing charter schools in public school buildings, introducing a resolution that they said would avoid conflicts between families at neighborhood schools and new charter schools placed inside of them.

Right now, Department of Education officials offer some charter schools space in public school buildings on their own, but the space-sharing arrangements are sometimes contentious. (Charter schools receive public funding, but operate outside of the DOE watch and are not guaranteed space in public school buildings.)

The Council resolution would force the department to follow some kind of a regular procedure — probably involving a requirement to work with members of a neighborhood — before it could place a charter school in a public building.

“Make community stakeholders part of that process,” City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, of the Bronx, said. “You fail miserably at including the people that have to deal with the fallout of the decisions that you make.”

Council Member Jessica Lappin of Manhattan, who chairs the council’s work on public land use issues, said that charter schools should be placed in the same way that new traditional public schools are placed. “I have worked very hard to bring community members, principals, and the Department of Education together so that we can resolve the issues that inevitably arise,” Lappin said. Why, she asked, shouldn’t charter schools be placed in the same way?

Testifying before the council, Department of Education officials said they agree that they need to improve the way that they bring in new schools, but they declined to support the resolution that would force them to follow a new procedure when doing it.

The hearing follows a flurry of high-profile and emotional fights over the department’s efforts to give charter schools space in traditional public school buildings. Most recently, the DOE’s decision to replace three traditional public elementary schools with charter schools inspired shouting matches between parents — and launched a lawsuit by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which accused school officials of breaking the law by re-drawing zoning laws without consulting parents. The DOE backed away from the plan last week, vowing to keep the schools open for now.

City Council members used the hearing as an opportunity to discuss not just space issues but broader concerns with charter schools, which have proliferated under the Bloomberg administration’s watch, growing from 17 when Mayor Bloomberg took office to 99 expected to open in the city this fall.

Council Member John Liu said that he worries that the rise of charter schools has created a “two-tiered” system: one for savvy parents who can maneuver their way into the schools, and another for the rest of parents. Members pointed to statistics showing that charter schools have fewer children with special needs, such as disabilities and a lack of familiarity with English, than traditional public schools.

Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf said that 10% of charter school students receive special education services, compared to 13% of traditional public school children, and 5% of charter school students are still learning English, compared to about 10% of students citywide. But Cerf insisted that charter schools are as public as any other school, and cited a study that found that New York City charter schools served the same kind of populations as nearby neighborhood schools.

Cerf said the city is working to expand the number of charter schools because the schools do a better job at serving poor and minority families than the traditional public schools in the same neighborhoods. He said that not helping charter schools grow, and instead forcing families to send their children to struggling traditional public schools, would be morally wrong. “To tell those parents that today they should wait for another generation of efforts to fix those, when there is an alternative that is working for them right now, is something we’re not willing to do,” Cerf said.

Council Member Bill de Blasio said that his objection is not to the impulse to improve public schools, but to the way that the DOE tries to do that. “From my perspective, as a public school parent, the Tweed experience has been top-down and narrow,” de Blasio said. “I don’t think that’s how you change the world. It’s from the community up.”