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What’s ahead for New York City charters?

Incoming mayor Bill de Blasio says he plans to charge charters rent for using public school buildings

New York City’s expansive charter school network may be in trouble. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who takes office this month, says he plans to charge charters rent for using space in school buildings and to stop new charters from opening. De Blasio says he will focus instead on improving traditional public schools, but the details of his plan for charters remain unclear.

The number of charter schools citywide grew under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg—from 17 in 2002 to 183 in 2013. About 70,000 of the city’s 1.1 million students attend charters, and an additional 50,000 currently in traditional schools are on waiting lists. Bloomberg also closed 140 traditional public schools, a move de Blasio plans to counter by preventing any more closures and creating an early warning system for schools before they are put on the state’s Persistently Low Achieving list.

Charter students outperformed students in traditional schools in math, but were slightly behind in English, according to 2012 state exam data. Charter students in every reported demographic group, including black students, Hispanic students, and English language learners, outpaced district averages in both subjects, according to the Department of Education.

About two-thirds of New York City charters are housed in public school buildings, and do not have to pay for rent, utilities, or safety services. This co-location is unique to New York because most charter operators nationwide pay rent to use public space, says Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The climate has been extremely receptive to attracting charter management organizations,” Rees says.

The savings on these costs for city charters is $2,712 per student, according to a 2010 analysis from the Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded agency that provides nonpartisan New York City budget information to the public and elected officials.

Advocates argue that since charters are public schools, they should be able to use public school space for free when available. “Paying rent will absolutely hurt them,” says Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform. “These are public school students that should have access to facilities and equitable funding for their schools.”

Charters will have less money to spend on instruction if they have to pay rent, says James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “Districts get a separate stream of facility funding—a combination of their local tax revenue and state aid,” which charters do not get, he says. “If charters have to spend funding on facilities, they are spending dollars that would otherwise go toward pedagogy and curriculum.”

De Blasio has not announced how much rent he plans to charge charters. “It would depend on the resources of the charter school or charter network,” he told the radio station WNYC in October. “Some are clearly very, very well resourced and have incredibly wealthy backers. Others don’t. So my simple point was that programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”