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Citing costs, councilman calls for moratorium on charter schools

A day after he berated education officials for underestimating the costs of operating the city’s charter schools, Councilman Stephen Levin took his activism a step further by calling for a moratorium on the opening of any charter schools.

The teachers union and several Democratic candidates for mayor have called for a moratorium on charter school co-locations, and legislation pending in Albany, sponsored by State Sen. Tony Avella, would do something similar.

But Levin’s announcement to block all charter schools from opening goes above and beyond their call. Instead of blocking charter schools from opening inside public school buildings, he would stop the schools from opening in the city at all. He said he intended to introduce a council resolution to impose a moratorium, a measure that is symbolic only.

Levin said the growth in the city’s spending on charter schools, estimated to increase 25 percent to more than $1 billion this year, is ”out of control” and would be better used to plug budget gaps in other social programs. He said the spending growth projected by the city in just a few months, which rose by 200 percent from $70 million to $210 million, ”shows that the cost to taxpayers in order to finance charter schools is only going to continue to increase.”

Charter school advocates dismissed Levin’s call for a moratorium and challenged his understanding of the way charter schools are funded. When a city student enrolls in a charter school rather than a district school, state law requires the the city to turn over its planned per-pupil expenditure for that student.

“Per pupil math is very simple. The charter portion of the budget went up because more children are being educated in charter schools,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement.

Two dozen new charter schools are opening this fall, and most city charter schools are also still in the process of adding grades. Together, those changes will expand charter school enrollment by nearly 19,000 students next year. Department of Education officials said today that enrollment growth — which the Independent Budget Office predicted — accounted for the entire projected increase in payments to charter schools.

The department joined a chorus of charter school advocates in accusing Levin of trying to curb parents’ right to enroll their children in schools that they choose.

“I find it totally outrageous and unacceptable that you could be so far off,” Levin said at Tuesday’s education budget hearing with department officials.

“We believe in empowering families with options. Charter schools are one of those options, and with over 50,000 students on wait lists, parents have clamored for them,” said Devon Puglia, a spokesman. “We can’t roll back the reforms that have triggered such a remarkable transformation in city schools.”

Glen Weiner, the acting executive director of StudentsFirstNY, accused Levin of pandering to the teachers union in the hopes of winning its endorsement in his reelection campaign this year. Levin is considered likely to win reelection has come under fire recently for his close relationship with Vito Lopez, the former state Assemblyman who resigned last month after being censured for sexually harassing his employees.

But UFT officials said Levin’s call for a moratorium is more aggressive than the union’s own position. The union opposes charter school co-locations unless elected parent councils in each district sign off on them. It does not oppose the creation of new charter schools.

Weiner said, “This extreme proposal is an insult to the 50,000 families who are on wait lists to get into the charter schools across the city.

“Councilmember Levin should ask the 750 parents whose children wound up on waitlists this year for charters in his district or the over 50,000 parents citywide if they want a moratorium to limit school choices for their children,” Merriman said. “We would be happy to introduce the councilman to some residents of his district that make less noise than the fringe opposition groups, but are just as deserving of his consideration.”