by Bill Phillips and James Merriman
As many of our students return to classes this week, we are reminded of some of the challenges we face in New York’s charter community. One of which is the funding inequality between district and charter schools — which hurts the ability of charters to provide adequate facilities and negatively impacts their operating budget and educational program.
Below is an opinion piece by NECSN President Bill Phillips and New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman on this issue. Be sure to also read our latest report that surveyed charter schools across the state to determine their facilities needs and made several recommendations to state policymakers.
Charter Schools Need Room to Grow
By definition, a school is an “institution for the teaching of children.” And the fact is most public schools in New York have a physical space to educate students — a building supported with public money. That is, unless that public school is a charter school.
In New York, charter schools are trusted to educate students. However, they do not automatically receive access to a building, and they also do not automatically receive dedicated facility funding. This uncertainty and lack of support takes a toll of the school and its students.
Many charters are forced to rob their operating Peter to fund their capital Paul. Thus hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be used to hire and train teachers, provide students with counselors and social workers, and invest in new technology that helps children learn instead pays the rent or mortgage.
Parent demand for charter seats is exploding. Inequitable funding puts the state’s charter sector at a crossroads — either state and city officials find a solution to the facilities crunch, or the number of new high-performing charter schools will grind to a halt.
Our organizations recently set out to measure just how severe this problem is, and the results are striking. We found that many New York charter schools are spending up to 17 percent of their operating funds on their buildings. If the average-sized charter school serves 250 students, then its spending on facilities will exceed more than $500,000 – enough to hire six new teachers or provide 350 days of professional development.
In addition, many charter facilities lack basic amenities, such as libraries, science labs, gyms or music rooms. It’s hard to even imagine a quality public education without a gym or even a library.
While charter operators are determined to get the job done in spite of these circumstances, none would argue that it is easy, and all would welcome public facility support.
There are some solutions, and it’s time our state and districts addressed these inequalities. New York City is a great example of how a charter sector can flourish when problem-solving lawmakers get behind it.
The city is home to 2/3 of the state’s charter schools. Sure, the size of the district is one reason. But co-location is another. Over the past 12 years, the city has provided free space in underutilized school buildings for charters to open. This accessibility has helped attract some of the country’s best national charter operators and helped grow many high-quality local networks and independent schools. The result is more students in New York City are out of failing district schools and in good public charter schools.
Co-location must continue in New York City under future Mayors and other districts throughout the state should be required to offer unused space to charters as well. School buildings belong to the taxpayers, and they deserve to know space is being maximized to help children and improve achievement.
But co-location will only get us so far. An estimated 45,000 new charter school seats will be needed during the next four years just to meet current demand. There simply isn’t enough underutilized space to accommodate all those students.
The state has begun to grapple with the problems embedded in its school finance structure. Law and policy makers soon will face very real decisions on how to make the system both equitable and efficient while ensuring affordability. True funding equity, based on the needs of the students, is a way to achieve these goals.
Charter school students deserve the same investment as all other public school children in this state. Funding equity would ease the facility burden by providing more money than the current system.
If we do not shift to this student-based equity, we will see hard-fought progress begin to stall, and we may even see some of the most talented leaders and teachers move to other states with student-focused priorities and investments. New York State cannot risk falling out favor as a leader in helping children through charters.
Across the state most charter schools are living up to the promise to provide a high-quality public education to students. Imagine what they could do without the facility challenge.