A summer showdown is simmering over quality educational opportunities for inner-city kids in New York City. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city teachers’ union, and the NAACP have joined forces in a lawsuit seeking to stop the location of 18 charter schools within existing public schools. The lawsuit has touched off noisy rallies for and against the “co-location” of the charter schools, as school operators and parent groups fight to get the union and the civil rights group to drop the lawsuit.
Charter schools are public-supported schools operated by contract, or charter, which are exempted from many of the regulations governing traditional district schools. The contracting authority—usually the state—gives administrators, teachers and parents greater autonomy over the students’ education in exchange for greater accountability for producing positive and measurable educational success. The schools are chartered for a short time, three to five years, after which they may have their contract renewed or terminated based upon the success of the students.
Typically, charter schools receive less financial support per pupil because they are funded solely by the contracting authority, whereas public schools receive state and local funding. This funding gap can make it very difficult for charter schools to operate in urban areas, where the premium on space causes operating costs to soar. Many city school districts seek to balance the disparity by housing charter schools inside public schools with available space. New York City’s Panel for Education Policy decided in February to co-locate the 18 charter schools in public schools in four Manhattan neighborhoods, including Harlem .
The union and the NAACP argue in their lawsuit that co-location of charter schools squeezes the traditional public school out of space and forces the cancellation of vital programs, such as music and art rooms and science laboratories. A study by the UFT on the effect of co-location released last month cited noneducational community programs such as a dental clinic and a mental health clinic operated on school property that will have to close. The study also complained that co-located charter schools get equal access to common facilities, such as the gym, even though they usually have fewer students. The lawsuit argues that this violates New York State law.
The UFT admits on its website that the city Department of Education has amended many of the facility utilization agreements for the co-located schools to try and address the concerns raised in the lawsuit, but the union continues to fight the co-locations in court.
The NAACP maintains that the co-location agreements are a form of segregation and must be opposed. At a rally in support of the lawsuit, one NAACP speaker put it this way: “When you put a wall between kids from the same neighborhood, and one kid has the best facilities and the other kid has inferior facilities, that’s second-class treatment,” the speaker said.
Former New York City Council Education Committee Chairwoman Eva Moskowitz, who now heads a charter school network, has characterized the teachers’ union’s fight against charter schools as “a union-political-educational complex that is trying to halt progress and put the interests of adults above the interests of children.” Moskowitz, a Democrat, points out that parents choose to place their kids in the charter schools because they provide a better opportunity. She decries the “hypocrisy” of classical liberal groups such as the NAACP that oppose parental choice in public education. “[They] believe in choice for themselves, but they don’t believe in choice for other people. To me, that is really fundamental to social justice: to have choices in life,” she says.
Research on student performance tends to support Moskowitz. According to a study of student performance published last January by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, students in more than half of New York City’s charter schools outperform their public school peers in math. A third of charter schools outperform the public schools in reading. The study shows that, after an initial adjustment period, charter school have a statistically significant positive impact.
“New charter school students show a significant loss on learning in reading but a significant benefit in math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools,” the study says. “In the second year, charter school students show positive improvement in both reading and mathematics compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools, and this impact stays positive and significant through the third year of attendance. The results also show that in New York City, black and Hispanic students enrolled in charter schools do significantly better in reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.”
At a recent rally against the UFT and NAACP action, a group of New York City school parents, mostly minorities, railed against the lawsuit. Standing in front of a sign reading, “UFT Your lawsuit hurts my children,” one concerned parent castigated the union.
“I’ve chosen a school that’s great, and a great fit for my daughter. But the UFT with this lawsuit, has slammed the door in her face,” she said. “This is not an anti-union demonstration. I belong to a union. I come from a family of union members. I believe unions should fight for jobs. But don’t fight my little girl. She deserves a good education.”
The court case is pending at the trial court level. The presiding Judge Paul Feinman has told the litigants that his court will not rule on whether the co-locations are good or bad, but will only determine whether the law was properly followed. If the court finds for the UFT and the NAACP, as many as 7,000 New York City school kids from economically disadvantaged areas may be denied the chance to improve their educational lot. Should it come, that denial would ironically be at the hands of two organizations that are supposed to be dedicated to their advancement.