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.