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Seeing a landlord/tenant dispute in the charter school rent debate

So much of the debate about charter schools seems to presume that New York City’s mayor has large sway over the sector. But Mayor Bill De Blasio has little more control over charter education than he does over education in private religious and independent schools.

According to state law, the mayor’s authority is largely limited to the 94 percent of city children who attend schools operated by the New York City Department of Education. The city does serve as the landlord to charter schools that operate in public space, which is a frequent source of tension, but that doesn’t mean the mayor controls what happens inside of them.

Under current state law, charter schools are completely out of the hands of the mayor and chancellor, though the Department of Education does play a role in recommending closure or reauthorization for the schools that it originally chartered. While public funding of charter schools comes from taxes (hence the term “public charter schools”), this funding is based on a state-mandated formula that the mayor does not control.

How much are charter schools not part of the city’s educational apparatus? Every charter school has its own board of directors. Some are associated with management organizations such as Success Academy, Achievement First, or Uncommon Schools. Others are single “mom and pop” entities. Because New York prohibits for-profit charter operators, all charter management organizations are nonprofits. None are governmental. Their executives, principals, and teachers are not hired, supervised, fired, or paid by the city.

In fact, arguing about why the city government is not now more supportive of charters under de Blasio is like arguing why it is not more supportive of kids in religious or independent schools. Charters must accept students by lottery but when a student leaves or is expelled — as is the family’s or school’s prerogative, just like in a private school — the Department of Education must take them in. By law, charters must educate children with special needs, and many do, but only based on services the charter is willing to provide, while district schools  must provide services to all, regardless of disability. Parents who choose to enroll their children in charters, like those enrolled in private schools, have opted to have their children educated outside the traditional public school system.

The hot-button issue about charters when it comes to their relation to the New York City Public Schools is whether any should be housed rent-free in Department of Education buildings. Mayor Michael Bloomberg created, by his sole discretion and perhaps outside his authority, a status quo in which some co-location exists. When he provided some charters with free space, he created an assumption that this was somehow a right or that charters fall under the Department of Education’s rules. They do not.

De Blasio seems willing to have these schools remain, amounting to approximately 40 percent of New York’s total. The rest are in separate charter-owned or rented facilities, the norm in the rest of the country, where co-located charters usually pay rent to the district. A few of New York’s co-located charters, the mayor has said, should also pay rent based on ability to pay. Granted, for those schools affected, this is a big deal. Landlord/tenant disputes are like that.

But that’s it. New York’s charter school war that makes headlines and monopolizes discussion of education is, like most wars, about real estate. We do not fight or scream about parochial schools. Many are better than some city schools, others are worse. So be it. Same with charter schools.

Let limited battles over rent be fought and decided on their individual merits based on capacity analysis and finances. The two sectors are bound to coexist for some time, each with separate and overlapping instructional and operational issues for their respective leaderships. Some degree of mutual support in finding solutions will benefit their students more than hyperbolic attacks based on misunderstandings of their legally separate operation and roles. 

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