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NYC Mayor Strikes a Major Blow to Charter Schools, Cuts $210 Million from Their Budgets

The NYC mayor is drawing a line in the sand when it comes to funding charter schools.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

 

The image is surreal. Newly elected New York mayor Bill de Blasio, wearing a broad and slightly goofy smile, dwarfs the infinitely vilified outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, who seems somewhat bemused himself.

For 12 years it was Mayor Bloomberg, standing at the forefront of a national education reform movement, who overshadowed Bill de Blasio and his progressive ilk. Bloomberg considered New York the “ poster child” of free-market education reform as he seized mayoral control of the district, closed nearly 200 “failing schools” and opened about that many charters.

But as de Blasio settles into office, his administration has already dealt major blows to one of Bloomberg’s sacred cows. Late last week, newly appointed schools chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that the Department of Education would redirect $210 million from charter schools and independent nonprofits to fund de Blasio’s pre-kindergarten initiative.

The surprise announcement reflects educational priorities in upheaval. The millions in question had been earmarked by the former administration to help clear space for new and expanding charter schools in the coming five years. Instead, Fariña plans to divert the funds to priorities like de Blasio’s flagship initiative, the pre-kindergarten programs sold largely as a remedy for inequality.

The move epitomizes the shifting public perceptions that propelled de Blasio into office. In his election, voters “were in many ways repudiating the last 12 years of Bloomberg,” says NYU education professor Pedro Noguera. While campaigning, de Blasio signed onto a moratorium on school closures and declared “the city doesn’t need new charters.”

A sharpened focus on inequality from the city’s top brass heralds a sea change in New York education, the third most deeply segregated system in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that de Blasio has targeted the charter sector many see as a manifestation of his well-known “tale of two cities” rhetoric. After private donations, many charters receive more funding than public schools, while serving markedly fewer students with special needs and English language learners.

The charter divide becomes most conspicuous in co-locations, the controversial practice of plopping new charters and district schools into the buildings of existing ones. Though some co-locations occur between traditional public schools, it’s co-located charters that spark the most indignation, especially when well-heeled charter networks renovate their half of the building without dropping a penny into district coffers. This is how charters get their slice of the district footprint.

A parting shot from the previous administration has left de Blasio to negotiate a record 42 new co-locations, approved hastily by an appointed panel in the last months of Bloomberg’s term. Though the budget announcement last week signalled de Blasio’s overall mood regarding charters, the traditional public schools slated for co-location are more concerned about Bloomberg’s final proposals, currently under review by the education department.

Weathering Reforms

I.S. 59 in Jamaica, Queens, is a potent example of how unevenly Bloomberg’s reforms impacted schools. The former mayor, who emphasized his desire for education to define his legacy, succeeded in leaving an impression there, of a sort: “They were setting the school up to fail.”

That’s according to PTA president Annette Brown, who says the school was once regarded as the " flagship junior high” in the district, renowned for its music and arts programs.

But population shifts brought on by Bloomberg’s reforms troubled the waters at the school, whose student body is over 90% black. New K-8 campuses, charter and traditional, siphoned off I.S. 59 enrollees, while transfers brought a crop of challenging students into the school. Within a decade, enrollment had dropped by about half. Since 2009, I.S. 59’s share of economically disadvantaged students has risen nearly 40%.