As the last few students shuffled out of P.S. 149 in Harlem, they paused for a moment to watch teachers and community members yelling “Whose schools? Our schools!” and waving signs reading “Separate and Unequal” and “Support Special Needs Education.”
Parents and teachers rallied at a public hearing at the school on Thursday to oppose the New York City Department of Education’s proposal to expand Harlem Success Academy Charter Schools into facilities already housing two K-8 schools, P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth and the Upper West Side’s P.S. M811 Mickey Mantle.
The debate at P.S. 149 is just one example of the controversy created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to co-locate public and charter schools—a policy that may fundamentally change if frontrunner Bill de Blasio, SIPA ’87, is elected mayor in November.
Supporters say charter schools deserve the same treatment as traditional public schools. But opponents say the practice deprives public schools of much-needed space.
For P.S. M811, which exclusively serves children with special needs, the space problem is of particular concern. While some acknowledged that the gradual expansion would result in the loss of only about three homerooms, teachers claimed that the expansion would impact hundreds of special-needs children by reducing crucial space for occupational and physical therapy.
“This is like a war on our most vulnerable kids,” said Noah Gotbaum, the second vice president of Community Education Council District 3, which represents parts of Harlem and the Upper West Side. “That’s what this co-location is. That’s what this administration has done.”
By next year, that administration will be gone. The Democrat de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, who leads the latest mayoral polls by more than 40 percent, says on his website that he would like to see co-location policies changed. A longtime critic of Bloomberg’s education policies, he has promised that he will provide more public information about how co-locations affect programs for students with disabilities, give parents more venues to voice their concerns, and start a process for the DOE to respond to parent concerns.
Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig said that the upcoming mayoral election is at the forefront of the co-location debate because the Bloomberg administration weakened traditional community school districts, which used to have an impact on educational policies but now have little power.
“Many of the education councils feel that they were largely ignored,” Henig said. “There is little question that the de Blasio administration would be more attentive to those kind of concerns.”
In August, CEC3 passed a resolution opposing further co-locations, especially by Harlem Success, and demanding rent payment from already co-located charter schools.
“It’s kind of saying our kids aren’t worth it, it’s OK to encroach on us,” Lynn Manuell, a theater arts teacher at P.S. 811, said. Manuell said the DOE had given preferential treatment to Harlem Success since it was founded in 2002, resulting in the gradual dissolution of the district school community.
Harlem Success spokesperson Kerri Lyon disagreed.
“We have overwhelmingly positive space-sharing relationships,” Lyon said in an interview, adding that no students would be displaced as a result of this co-location.
Barbara Denham, an economist and public school parent, raised concerns about charter school evaluations and what they reveal about Harlem Success’s model.
“Success Academy schools are poised to get a D on their progress reports this year,” Denham said. “Why are we continuing to be asked to make room for a program whose model is not designed to scale up?”
But Lyon said that the charter school is barely able to guarantee enough seats to match enrollment.
“Success is going to end up having much higher class sizes” in this situation, she said. “They are the ones compromising.”
According to Lyon, charters do not receive funding from the city to acquire their own buildings, and, like other public schools, they rely on the DOE for space allocation. As a result, Lyon said, they should not have to pay rent.
“All public charter schools want is equity with traditional public schools,” Lyon said.
Co-location charters, which are authorized by the State University of New York Board of Trustees, are not strictly permanent.
“The way the state law works is that once they are OK for co-location, they have to reapply every so many years,” Marisa Maack, chair of Community Board 7’s youth, education and libraries committee, said. “Success schools get their charter for five years, so it’s not forever.”
But in practice, Maack said, few charter schools are rejected, and SUNY will approve charters without a designated location.
Henig said charter schools, generally, intend to expand.
“A lot of charter schools intend to grow, and that adds apprehension on the part of the traditional public schools,” Henig said.
He also noted that while a lot of opposition and outrage surrounding co-location plays out very publicly, there is a considerable lack of academic research about the system and its effects.
Lyon claimed that opposition to charters is misplaced. She said that 20,000 people attended a recent rally near NYU in support of charters—although critics at the hearing said Harlem Success had let teachers not come to school specifically for the event.
“Everybody is asking the wrong questions instead of asking, ‘These schools are amazing, why aren’t we learning from them?’” Lyon said of charters. “That should send a very strong message to whoever is leading this city that having great public schools is a priority.”
Ultimately, Henig said, a de Blasio administration may mean significant change for the policy.
“Everything’s got a greater band of uncertainty now because there will be a change in administration,” Henig said.