Last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told a local radio station that there would be a “moratorium” on co-locating charter schools in New York City Public Schools. Under the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, public charter schools could use excess space in traditional public-school buildings for free. Charter schools do not receive facilities funding from the state of New York, unlike their traditional public counterparts, and many public schools had excess space, so the administration saw it as a win-win. According to the Manhattan Institute, two-thirds of charter schools in New York are co-located.
This arrangement seems fair so long as charter schools are in the shared enterprise of educating New York’s children and do not otherwise receive funding for buildings. The buildings were built with taxpayer money to educate children, after all. Removing this support could risk successful schools going under and would certainly raise barriers to entry for new schools to crop up in New York.
But what is perhaps more troubling is that screwy building-use policies are by no means confined to the Big Apple.
Until 2009, St. Louis Public School policy prevented unused school buildings from being sold to charter schools. The Chicago Public Schools require a forty-year ban of K-12 educational use as a condition of sale of unused school buildings. It took the Ohio Supreme Court overturning Cincinnati’s policies to allow charter schools to buy old schools. The Wisconsin State Legislature has had to attempt to grant power to the City of Milwaukee to circumvent the school district and sell old buildings to charter schools. All told, a 2013 Pew Charitable Trust survey of twelve large urban districts, including Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia found 327 unused school buildings simply sitting vacant.
Frustratingly, building politics play out in cities like St. Louis where interdistrict busing plans have attracted a great deal of controversy. Missouri passed a law stating that students from unaccredited districts (like St. Louis) had the right to transfer to neighboring accredited districts. Numerous suburban school systems rose up in protest. Rather than creating new and better schools within the communities where children live, the state wants to bus them out to the suburbs.
Such busing plans are at best a Band-Aid. Rather than try and move kids around, why not focus more energy on creating new high quality schools in the neighborhoods kids live in?
After all, failure tends to persist. Research from the Brookings Institution tracking 1,156 schools in California from 1989 to 2009 found 63 percent of the schools in the bottom quarter remained there for the twenty years of the study, and only 1 percent of those bottom-quarter schools made it into the top quarter. Educators looking for strategies to turnaround their struggling schools are out of luck as well. A review of the existing literature by the Institute for Education Sciences, “did not find any empirical studies that reached the rigor necessary to determine that specific turnaround practices produce significantly better academic outcomes.” The only method of school turnarounds found by a recent AEI paper to be associated with positive results was complete restructuring of the school—that is, firing the leadership and a large number of staff and starting over.
It is manifestly unfair to trap students in these schools. But simply shutting down bad schools doesn’t help anybody. New, better schools need to replace them.
Finding a building can be a huge hurdle for a new school. Allowing promising schools to use existing school buildings is a way around this problem. There is an existing stock of buildings that can be used—in New York City and elsewhere—for the purpose. Only politics stands in the way.
Dr. Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former inner city high school teacher, and author of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and Political.