Barring any astounding development, on Dec. 20, the Panel on Educational Policy will vote to allow 13 new charter schools to open next fall in Department of Education buildings currently used by at least one other public school. While parents, students, educators and others sharply disagree on the merits of the individual schools, many concur that the process for deciding which charters go where is deeply flawed.
Already some mayoral candidates have opposed the procedure. And speakers at two hearings in north Brooklyn last week offered scathing attacks on how the DOE sites charter schools.
Under New York state law, charter schools do not get money for facilities, a major obstacle where space is scarce and expensive. The DOE has come to the rescue by providing charters with free space. In 2011-12, according to New York City Charter School Center, 58 percent of the city's charter schools were in DOE buildings. While the Education Department no longer has the power to authorize charters -- that responsibility lies with the state Board of Regents and SUNY – its Office of Portfolio Planning places the schools.
The hearing process is "a piece of theater that leaves us disappointed and even dehydrated," said District 14 parent Kate Yourke, "I don't know how we stop this because we have no power. The law in this state gives us no say."
The hearing in Williamsburg concerned the proposal to locate an elementary school operated by Citizens of the World, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, in the MS 126 John Ericsson, also shared by Believe Northside Charter High School. Another, in District 13, involved locating a Success Academy school -- one of six new ones slated to open next September -- in Dr. Susan S. McKinney School of the Arts in Fort Greene near the Navy Yard.
Many at the two hearings wondered why – when there is a shortage of good middle schools -- the DOE is sanctioning the creation of more elementary schools. To thicken the plot, Success is run by Eva Moskowitz. Moskowitz' husband, Eric Grannis, a lawyer who has independently been involved in starting several charter schools over the past decade, played a key role in bringing Citizens of the World to Brooklyn. They expressed concerns about placing elementary school children in the same building with older kids. They worried the charter would hurt the existing district schools. And they assailed the DOE.
Similar arguments reportedly raged at a hearing Monday on another Success Academy -- this one slated for space in Washington Irving High School near Union Square. And they could continue into next month when a hearing takes place on the second Citizens of the World School, which DOE wants to place in PS 221 in Crown Heights.
Hearing in Williamsburg
Emotions ran high in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. At least two speakers ended up in tears. Supporters of Citizens of the World were shouted down and criticized for being naïve or hypocritical.
Some parents worry the 2013 opening of Citizens of the World, one year after Success Academy Williamsburg opened in 2012, could cripple efforts to make the district schools more diverse, siphoning off white and affluent kids. Williamsburg does not need more elementary schools, they said.
"You are not offering us what we want. Having a school like this is like having another McDonald's in the neighborhood," one parent said.
The Community Education Council for District 14 opposes the charter. The district's politicians registered their opposition, as did representatives of Believe Northside Charter High School. Brooke Parker, a leader of Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for our Public Schools said fewer than 30 people had expressed support for Citizens of the World, while more than 300 had signed on to fight it.
Some parents, though, saw contradictions in the opponents' arguments. "You're asking us to put our children in schools run by the Department of Education and yet you're telling us the Department of Education is incompetent," said Paula Notari, a pro-charter parent.
School supporters bemoaned a proceeding that had become so vitriolic. "No one should be intimidated into sending their child to a particular school," Tara Phillips, senior director of community relations for Citizens of the World, said in an interview. The school was invited into the community, she said. "There needs to be choice."
Hearing in Fort Greene
The issue in Fort Greene revolved largely around whether McKinney's art facilities would suffer if the school lost space to Success. "All you see is space, space, space," one student told the crowd. "You don't realize what it's there for. It's used to take students closer to their dreams."
Connie Pankratz, communications manager for the DOE, said that McKinney uses far more space than it is entitled to under citywide standards. If the proposal goes through, she said in an email, "The performing arts space will either be unchanged or be re-created at a different location within the building."
But the process, once again, played a major role. Success seemed confident it would prevail, as it has with locations throughout the city. There were no Success speakers but spokesperson Kerri Lyons says its' record speaks for itself. According to Lyons, Fort Greene Success already has more than 200 applicants, well in advance of the April 1 application deadline and before it officially has a home.
Opponents know their options are limited. To register their protest, members of the Community Education Council for District 13 decided not to speak. Its president, David Goldsmith, said the city never consulted with the council, giving them just 12 hours to review the proposal -- and then claiming they had gotten community input.
Charter opponents say speaking at the hearings is the only chance for them to state their case. Now parents in Williamsburg are preparing a suit to try to stop Citizens of the World from opening. Some in Fort Greene are mulling legal action as well.
So far opponents of charters have not fared very well in the courts, which could kick this issue back to the political arena -- and next year's mayoral contest.
(Updated 12/17 to reflect Eric Grannis' work in creating other charter schools)