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An Open Letter to Bill de Blasio

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Dear Mr. de Blasio:

Like most progressive types, I am excited by the prospect of your probable election. I was a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New Jersey before moving to Los Angeles in 1990. We have a new, terrific, progressive mayor in Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, and an equally terrific city attorney Mike Feuer. These are folks you should get to know. Besides being left-leaning policy wonks who share a world view with you, Eric and Mike happen to be strong supporters of charter schools, including the one I founded in 2001, the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a social justice-themed K-12 school serving some of the poorest families in California.

It pains me that you are off to such a bad start regarding public education reform. It's not too late, however, to take a deep breath and a step back in order to assess the situation and develop a more nuanced, and accurate, position. By the end of this letter I will be agreeing with you that some form of rent payments by charter schools makes sense, but let me elaborate on some useful steps to getting there. Los Angeles is the vortex of the charter school experience nationwide. We have over 100,000 students and 200 charter schools in Los Angeles alone. We also have a constantly-refined state charter schools law. So the Los Angeles experience should be instructive.

Let's start with some first principles. First, education is that rare public policy issue that creates a large tent, occupied by folks of all political stripes. Most people see our children as our future, and want them to succeed. In order to maintain that large tent, however, we have to fiercely insist on kid agendas and no adult agendas. It is all about the kids. People who are working to advance the academic and social achievement of kids are my friends and should be yours; those who would undermine those efforts in order to advance some adult agenda are my enemies and should be yours as well.

Second, we are all trying to improve the public school system. Charter schools are public schools. They serve the same kids as the regular public school system. Charter schools are one useful piece in the puzzle, and done well they serve as valuable laboratories of best practices. To develop a policy regarding charter schools you need to visit them, not just the CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) like Uncommon Schools but also the stand-alone mom and pop schools like Community Roots in the projects in Brooklyn. You need to understand the empowerment that school choice gives to parents who have never been empowered.

Third, although it is an awesome privilege to be able to create a public school in our own image, we charter school developers are forced to provide facilities -- public infrastructure -- from the budget provided to us by the state. In a city like New York where real estate is at a premium, finding adequate facilities at a reasonable price is almost impossible. Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein apparently worked to solve this issue by renting space in district schools for $1. And thus the charter school movement blossomed.

So let's take a look at how charter schools in Los Angeles operate. Most of us rent space from churches and other below-market landlords. The companies who make a living providing back office services to charter schools -- budget, payroll, tax filings -- have a rule of thumb regarding rent to be paid for space. If the amount of rent paid is greater than $750 per pupil per year, it will begin to undermine the ability of the school to provide an adequate academic program. Put another way, charging $2,400 per pupil would kill the school.

In Los Angeles, we also benefit from a state law, SB740, that provides rent reimbursement to those charter schools serving the poorest families. Seventy-five percent of the students in schools receiving rent reimbursement must qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. The rent reimbursement pays three-quarters of the rent up to a cap of $1,000 per student. Therefore if the rent is $1,000 per student, the state gives us $750 and the school pays $250. This is an extraordinarily important program, and I would strongly urge you to tie your insistence on charter schools paying rent to the state passing a SB740-like statute that benefits those schools that have taken on the greatest challenge -- that is, to educate the poorest students.

Finally, let's look at the rent figure itself. There is no question that for internal accounting purposes the regular school system should have some idea what they are spending on facilities. But you have to concede that whatever that internal figure is, it is likely the product of decades of mismanagement and a real lack of accountability. The school districts nationwide are only now confronting the need for tighter and more efficient business practices. Charter schools cannot and should not be held to the same inflated rent number. You are clearly on the right track when you suggest that there should be something like a means test for rent payment, but you can achieve that by lobbying the state legislature to provide rent reimbursement to those schools serving the poorest kids. And keep in mind, when a fair rent number is chosen, that the space being rented charter schools is often the excess space resulting from enrollment decline. Surely the first thousand square feet is more valuable than the last.

Now let me address the elephant in the room. Why do so many progressives demonstrate real skepticism about charter schools? It is only part of the answer that the teachers unions worry that charters will not be organized, and therefore jobs are at stake, causing polemicists like Diane Ravitch to lie with statistics in order to put the charter genie back in the bottle. The other part of the answer has to do with race and class. The charter movement has not yet generated sufficient cadres of leadership from the ranks of people of color. Charter leaders are entrepreneurs and risk takers, and to date they are overwhelmingly white and middle class. Therefore in getting up to speed on charter policy, it would make real sense to meet with Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system, who is now devoting his considerable charisma and efforts to addressing this very issue. His organization is called Black Alliance for Educational Options. The two of you would become fast friends -- partners in figuring out the guarantee of a meaningful K-12 education to every kid, no matter what challenges his/her family might face. I hope that these thoughts will prove useful.

In solidarity,
Roger