Advancing school choice by investing in charter-school buildings

June 29, 2016

New York Daily News - Opinion
June 29, 2016

Mayor de Blasio danced a neat political two-step as he shifted his position last week on charter schools, saying his opposition to these innovative choices for families has been overblown and misconstrued. Ironically, his position — at least in practice — no longer matters.

A one-two punch consisting of recent changes to state funding and a national infusion of facilities philanthropy from the Walton Family Foundation means that high-flying charter public schools will continue to thrive in New York City — no matter what the mayor, or anyone else, thinks.

This is good news for students, teachers, neighborhoods and taxpayers.

De Blasio was on just his second public visit to a charter as mayor last week when a pointed question from a seventh grader about whether he supports charter schools led him to change track. The exchange occurred at Harlem RBI’s Dream Charter School, which Rich Berlin founded in 2008 to serve families in a neighborhood with far too few great schools.

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Opening Dream’s doors required jumping through more hoops than Berlin and the team could ever have envisioned - an initial co-location with a district-run school, a capital campaign, coordination with seven different city bureaucracies, an agreement to build 88 low-income housing units and a new public park, plus $53.5 million in funds from government agencies, individuals and more than one dozen lenders.

Seven years and countless frustrations later, Berlin finally opened the first public school built in East Harlem in nearly 50 years. And now he’s tackling the challenge again, securing financing to build a quality high school for Dream’s elementary students to continue their studies.

It shouldn’t be hard for education entrepreneurs to offer children a path of hope. Yet in New York City and across the country, it is. Access to affordable facilities is the biggest roadblock to charter school growth, which have provided millions of students with a high-quality education for a quarter century.

There are many reasons for this, but some simple ways to solve for it: Districts need to make unused school space available to charters and capital markets need to modernize how they assess risk and assign interest rates.

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While the Bloomberg administration welcomed charter co-locations — and was willing to fight for them — de Blasio and his schools chancellor have been less so. But with strong leadership from New York’s governor and lawmakers, Albany recently announced a budget agreement that gives charter schools, when their districts fail to accommodate them in existing buildings, up to 20% of their total funding to pay rent.

De Blasio visits a charter school


It’s a welcome change. But particularly in costly cities like New York, it’s no substitute for public space. Tuesday, the Walton Family Foundation launched the Building Equity Initiative — a $250 million effort to provide low-interest loans to help charter schools create the facilities they need and deserve — that is a potential game changer.

By 2027, this initiative will help charter public schools put more than 250,000 new students in classrooms across the country.

These are positive steps that New Yorkers should be proud of. Individually, they will help unwind decades of misguided policy that has subordinated the future of children and the choices of families to the political exigencies of special interests. Collectively, they are a call to action to governments, philanthropists, the private sector and others nationwide: The facilities barrier must be cleared.

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Twenty-five years after the charter movement began, there’s growing demand nationwide for great schools. More than one million student names, from Denver to Los Angeles and New Orleans to New York City, remain on charter school waiting lists. About $2.3 billion is spent annually on charter school facilities. Projections show spending will need to jump more than 50% in the next three years to meet demand — an increase of $1.4 billion dollars.

The initiative will benefit not only the students and families served in these schools, but also taxpayers. Charters can stretch construction dollars further by building schools outside the bureaucracy of a government agency.

And by providing lean, sensible project financing, educators will be able to focus on their students and the professional development of their teachers, not the business of real estate and interest rate arbitrage. Instead of spending operating budget dollars on high rents and usury-level interest rates, charter school leaders will be able to send more money into their classrooms.

The vocabulary of achievement is rooted in the language of buildings. The foundation for success. The window of opportunity. The stairway to the future. It’s ironic, therefore, that the bottleneck to the success of so many children is the lack of buildings where they can learn. But with help from the New York legislation and the Walton Family Foundation’s initiative, we’re closer to the day when there is no ceiling on students’ futures.

Rees is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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