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When Charters Try to Crowd Out Marginalized Public School Kids

A battle in NYC shows what happens when corporate-backed schools fight special needs public school kids for space.

Photo Credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock


In the national debate over education, corporate education reformers are arguing that charter schools are just another option for parents who deserve to have an array of choices on where to send their children. This framing purports to situate charter schools alongside public schools in coexistence rather than competition. But this is false. The harmonious vision falls apart when charters literally push out public schools, as illustrated by the current battle between charter chain Success Academy and several public schools in New York City’s Harlem.

A close look at the seemingly local dispute also shatters the fundamental premise that charters are as “public” as public schools, serving all children. With the charter movement in 42 states and stronger than ever, the struggle for space in Harlem is shedding light on some of the sector’s most dubious practices.

At the center of the dispute in Harlem, between Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are a group of students for whom the stakes of the debate — not just in Harlem but across the country — are quite high. Special education students are largely underrepresented in the charter sector, and if Success Academy had expanded the way it had hoped, it would have reduced space for a public school serving some of the city’s highest need students. That school is in District 75, a non-geographic district that serves students with disabilities across all of New York City, including children with autism, emotional or behavioral disorders, and multiple disabilities. Nationally, children with these types of high need disabilities are even more underserved by the charter sector than special needs children in general.

What’s going on in Harlem, then, may be unique to New York in terms of co-locations — when several schools are housed in the same building — but taps into the much broader issue of access and exclusion in the education “reform” movement. The territory dispute over limited space in New York City is symbolic of those national trends, with a charter school (Success Academy) attempting to expand its space at the expense of existing public schools (PS 149 and PS 811, the latter of which is in District 75). District 75 schools are often co-located with public schools that serve general education populations. Sometimes, District 75 schools exist at multiple sites, meaning a principal may be at one site, but the school may have other locations around the city with their own students, teachers and administrators.

In the struggle to find space for both public and charter schools, District 75 schools have long been the first to get shuffled around, according to Advocates for Children, an organization that defends access to education for students with disabilities and other marginalized children facing discrimination. “Because they’ve been broken up into pieces, the DOE [New York City Department of Education] often hasn’t seen them as having a real claim on being part of an education community,” explained Kim Sweet, executive director at Advocates for Children. But, added AFC staff attorney Paulina Davis, “I think for the students who are in those programs, they very much consider that [location] to be their school. That’s their community.”

Even when they don’t displace a District 75 school entirely, co-locations can encroach on available space and squeeze a building’s available resources. For high-need special education students, who often receive supports like speech, occupational and physical therapy, losing space to additional schools may leave them with literally nowhere to go. If Success Academy had expanded as planned into PS 811 in Harlem, those kids would have been left doing therapy in the halls.

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