Charter School Tensions in Greenpoint’s District 14

New NYU Study May Cause Charter Controversy

Picture a New York City public school with gleaming, freshly-painted walls and floors, brand new bathrooms, functioning water fountains and ergonomically correct chairs for every student.  Every piece of technology is state of the art and students are individually monitored, their progress carefully charted and observed.  Charter schools such as Success Academy, KIPP and Achievement First make this utopia a reality, but many critics and thousands of public school parents say this comes at the direct expense of existing traditional public schools and their students.

One former Success teacher (who asked to remain anonymous to protect her current position) recalled the school’s sterile, shining environment vividly; she once took a video of a college intern from Northwestern swiffer-ing walls by hand to ensure the gleam was up to snuff.   Given that most Success Academies are housed in collocated buildings, one might expect that this picture applied to all schools housed in this building.

But critics insist there is no sharing that wealth, and that differences between schools floor to floor within the building are depressingly and unavoidably stark.  This former teacher said that her school once took over the theater room of the neighboring district school to use as a gym.  They soon discovered, however, that students couldn’t actually engage in much physical activity as the walls and ceiling of the district school classroom below were crumbling into pieces.  “Every time our kids ran and jumped, things were falling off the ceilings onto the children below them,” she said.

These gaps in facilities and other notable indicators of funding has been the subject of both vitriolic derision and fanatical support among parents and administrators for over a decade.  In what is sure to be a controversial new study, one NYU PhD student says her research has found that charter collocation may have increased per pupil expenditures over time.  She also believes that collocated charters have had a positive effect on district student performance due to increased competition among schools.

“In collocated schools there ends up about an eight percent increase in per people expenditures after charter schools open,” Sarah Cordes said. “There’s also a decrease in class size, in collocated schools it’s about two kids per teacher, which is pretty substantial, I’d say.”

Cordes used extensive DOE administrative data to measure spillover effects of charter schools to traditional district students collocated within one mile.  She compares the outcomes of students in district schools that are closely located to a newly opened charter school with the welfare of students in schools where no new charter school opened up.  She is able to link students over a longer period of time to control for prior performance and to group student results by performance, race and gender, in addition to cross-referencing this information with school resource records.

Cordes says that many funds are allocated in the form of block grants that each school receives regardless of the number of students it houses.  She found that due to decreased enrollment in district schools after charter schools become an option, spending per student actually increases because there are fewer students splitting the pot.  “Things like Title 1 aid, or there are categorical grants that are just sort of given in chunks to the school no matter how many kids there are.  So after charter schools open and enrollments decline those resources get spread over fewer kids,” she said.

Some parents find this hard to believe. In a recent press release, a collection of parent’s groups across the city charge that charters could not be decreasing class size (and therefore increasing funding) because they are purposefully under-enrolling.  These parents say that much like a popular nightclub that holds patrons outside to increase the illusion of popularity, charters are backing up students on their wait lists to enhance the illusion of demand.  In fact, they charge that more than two-thirds of 18 charters which opened in the 2013-2014 school year were under-enrolled.

But unless massive fraud and embezzlement were taking place unchecked on the government’s watch, the obvious funding gaps may primarily come down to a gap in lucrative connections.  The former Success teacher says she watched the money flow at the school due to a cushy relationship with Wall Street.  “They have a huge PR machine and a huge legal machine to milk every dollar out of it.  They tout their test scores to Wall Street, who knows nothing about education, and Wall Street pours tax-deductible money into it, and they end up with tremendous disposable income,” she said.  “The operations manager at my school used to refer to it as ‘playing with monopoly money.”

In the end, parents are screaming for oversight.  Tesa Wilson, District 14’s CEC President, says her District is bothered by the fact that charters receive public funding but are not subject to the same bureaucratic regulation as her local district school.  “I always look at it this way as a taxpayer, because now my tax dollars which go towards my local district schools are now sent to an outside entity without any oversight by any city agency or any state agency, about how monies are spent, exactly where they go, are the children getting the necessary support services,” she said.  “It really is like the charter money black hole.”