First Person

Co-location debate needs to move from arguments to facts

When it comes to New York City charter schools’ co-location in district buildings, the current debate has generated far more heat than light-and even the heat is exaggerated.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking something like this: Charter school co-location involves widespread “space wars” provoked by elitist outsiders who invade neighborhood schools, exacerbate over-crowding, and take more than their share of scarce resources.” Yet every one of these impressions is wrong. In this column, I’ll explain why, and I’ll also offer my suggestion for a way to make the co-location process more fact-based.

1.  Charter school students are neighbors, not invaders. They come from the same districts and communities as children in co-located public schools. They are public school students, who would still need to be educated in a neighborhood school building if charter schools disappeared tomorrow.

No, charter students aren’t statistically identical in every respect; at the district level, charter students are more likely to be African American and somewhat less likely to have special needs (the reasons for this are complicated). Opponents who feign outrage at this while ignoring far wider inequalities-even in schools they run-only show that their motivation is ideological.

2. Co-location conflict is the exception, not the rule. With the city’s shift toward small schools, co-location is a fact of life for public schools of all kinds. When charters are involved, the result is usually the same: schools brush shoulders on occasion but generally arrive at arrangements that are workable for everyone.

Despite this, discussion of charter school co-location almost always centers on the same three or four examples-themselves fanned and publicized by outside ideological interests. Can you imagine the outcry if this story about NYC co-location involved a charter school?

3. Charter schools co-locate in underutilized buildings. Co-location stories resonate because New York City has a problem with overcrowding — except that it doesn’t in the neighborhoods where most charter schools co-locate. In Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and the South Bronx, district schools are undersubscribed for largely the same reason that charter schools are oversubscribed: The old system isn’t getting the job done for many children. This is not a zero-sum game, and, in any case, charter schools get fewer square feet of space per student than district schools.

4. Co-location is essential to charter school fairness and survival. The Independent Budget Office recently used citywide averages to calculate that, since charter schools receive no funding for facilities, those without a district space get about $3,000 less in public support per pupil than district schools. (The gap is probably much wider in charter-heavy neighborhoods.) Simply put, public charter schools find it far more difficult to exist without access to public space and no access to facility funding. For charter school opponents who seek a co-location moratorium, that’s clearly the idea. But for those who believe in public school equity (and don’t think charter schools should be abolished), it is clear they must either  support giving charter schools public space or put through legislation that gives charter schools equal facility funding.

In a debate that has been long on ideology and short on facts, some truly independent study could go a long way. Charter schools would welcome a review of the impacts of public school co-location, in all of its forms. What are the impacts of co-location in general, including those of gifted and talented programs within zoned elementary schools? What are the educational impacts of co-location? Exactly how many square feet per student do charter and district schools receive, respectively? Are these data different where there are co-located district schools? Do co-located schools, including charter schools, get equal access to common areas such as gyms, cafeterias and auditoriums? What building-level supports could the Department of Education provide to make co-location arrangements go more smoothly, and how could co-location decisions be made more transparent?

Such a study would have to meet certain conditions, however:

  • It must be conducted by a truly independent and exactingly neutral observer.   This will be hard to find; two citywide office holders have already made clear their unequivocal bias against charter schools. The Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm that helps non-profit organizations, might be a good place to start. 
  • It must review all co-locations and not simply look at the relatively small numbers involving charter schools, and it must take into account educational outcomes (positive and negative) in the system as a whole. 
  • It cannot be accompanied by a moratorium. Remember when the UFT called for a study and a moratorium on the use of student achievement data in tenure decisions?  The blue-ribbon panel  that the law called for has never met-not least because it was never created.

Once completed, such a study could then form the factual basis for a policy discussion on whether the current system needs to be modified.  With the facts in hand, we could move beyond shouting to a real conversation.

In the meantime, however, let’s remember what we are talking about. For parents who have lived with failing schools, the advent of effective new schools, including charter schools, has been a godsend.  Where there is space available, and high-quality charter school teams ready to start excellent schools, we should continue to provide charter schools with public space for the public education they provide. And, yes, where there is a chronically failing school (whether it be district or charter), replacement of the school should be considered, including, if there is a high-quality applicant, by a charter school.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.