11/17/2014 06:44 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Stop the Co-location Squeeze

Chris Hondros via Getty Images

If you follow education news in New York, you've no doubt heard by now that the state has approved 17 new charter schools for New York City. At the moment, there have been no official decisions on where these new schools will be located, but you can bet the charter operators will want all of them to be in existing school buildings, a phenomenon known as co-location. In fact, a new state law requires the city either to provide free space or pay rent for a charter school to occupy another space. However, we should not allow this encroachment on our already severely crunched public school space. There is already a severe need for classroom space in New York City's public school system, and private charter outfits, who have a precedent of being bad neighbors, should not get first dibs.

Yes, I know that some charter schools have produced student bodies with high academic achievement. Charter supporters can rattle off a litany of statistics on how good student performance is at, say, the Success Academy chain compared to city averages. However, one has to step back and consider the actual story behind the numbers: is it that charter schools produce students who perform better, or that these schools have a greater ability to engineer a student body of higher performing students?

For one, charter schools are able to admit students more selectively. "But William," you may ask, "how can charter schools be selective when admissions must be done by lottery?" First of all, call me Bill. Secondly, even if there is a lottery, that still means the children have parents who are proactive enough about their children's education that they applied in the first place. These parents likely will continue to take such a role when their children are in school.

And for that matter, charter schools often have huge advertising budgets to attract better students. Anyone in New York City can attest to seeing big ads for charter schools. In 2009, the Success Academy chain spent $325,000 in advertising, or about $90 per applicant. Even more outlandish, a leaked internal document from the Citizens of the World charter school described its plan to target white and affluent families for its inaugural class of students. In comparison, most public schools manage to scrape together around $500 to promote themselves. This results in charter school student bodies with higher performing students, including fewer special needs students and English language learners, and consequently more of them in the traditional public schools.

In addition to having a greater ability to be selective in admitting students, charters also have a much greater ability to aggressively "counsel out" students who are performing worse. A study by the city's Independent Budget Office found that 80% of charter school students with special needs left the school within three years, compared to 50% of their traditional public school counterparts, raising the question over whether charters pushed out these students. Some parents of charter school special needs students say their children did not get state-mandated help, which charter schools deny or sometimes argue is due to a lack of resources, but skeptics think is done to intentionally sabotage these students so they will transfer out before they can drag down student test score averages.

Charter schools also get to set their own discipline codes, giving them another tool to weed out potentially difficult students. Once a student has infractions on his or her record, that gives the school major leverage to pressure parents to transfer him or her out, or simply harangue a family with enough disciplinary procedures that they pull the child out of the school. The Success Academy chain has a zero-tolerance discipline code, a policy with major shortcomings that I've discussed previously. At Success Academy I, more than 1 in 5 students in grades K-5 were suspended, compared to 3 percent of students in its district, and the chain's other schools do not fare much better. The Achievement First charter school chain, which received permission to open three schools, is so quick to suspend that their manual literally says, "If in doubt, send them out." This chain also operates in Connecticut, where it is now under investigation for having a suspension rate twice that of the state's traditional public schools.

That's not to say that there isn't merit to having the brightest students being in their own schools. I highly suspect that a unionized public school with the same ability to determine its student body would also result in students with high test scores. And students with learning disabilities should not be forced to stay in a charter school that cannot or will not address their needs in the name of statistical fairness when comparing educational outcomes.

However, it is patently absurd to compare the top charters to public schools with far less ability to determine their student bodies. In particular, there are district schools that are required to admit any students in the area, who are enrolled by default and not a lottery. These are schools where a truant student wandering the streets might spend the day if caught by the cops. And even schools that can selectively admit students, including New York's specialized high schools, still cannot easily expel a student. For a smaller public school, even one or two lower performing students can drastically change the study body's averages for performance. Nevertheless, charter school supporters dogmatically equate correlation with causation and assert that the lack of unionized teachers must be the reason for charter schools' successes.

Besides all that, for all the hype, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is that charter schools overall don't perform as well as traditional public schools. A 2013 study by Stanford University concluded that, nationally, only 25 percent of charter schools performed significantly better than traditional schools in reading, 56 percent were the same, and 19 percent were worse; for math, the numbers were 29 percent, 40 percent, and 31 percent, respectively. For New York City, the same study did find that charter school students scored significantly better than traditional public school students in math, but charters made no significant impact on reading scores. However, even if New York City's charter schools had a modicum of success, the results varied wildly around the country: Nevada's charter schools performed so much worse than traditional public schools that attending a charter school in that state was the equivalent of having over a hundred fewer days of learning.

But you don't need to travel to Nevada to find a charter that performs worse. Consider the ReadNet Bronx Charter School, an elementary school whose academic performance was so poor that the school chose to shut down rather than face inevitable rejection for a charter renewal. The young students were now left out in the cold, with their families having to scramble to find new schools for the next year. (A second grader at ReadNet literally had a nightmare that he would not be able to go to school again.) One can only imagine what the students at ReadNet might have accomplished if had they not been human guinea pigs in this failed experiment.

What all this adds up to is that, once you peel back all the charter school hype, the argument that they need our public school space becomes less compelling. Public schools are strapped for space and resources as it stands, and adding more students to a building would seem only to compound the problem. A report from Comptroller Scott Stringer found that a third of the city's schools are over capacity. Five schools are currently at double their capacities. Over 7,000 students have classes in trailers, which were supposed to be temporary but nevertheless have stood for years, due to a lack of permanent class space. Meanwhile, some charter schools were found to be under-enrolled.

Given this, if there is additional space, maybe we can start by relieving the crunch on existing schools before throwing a new one into the equation. Or if there is to be a charter added to a school building, then at the very least compensate by reducing the size of a building's existing student bodies. Another good idea could be to use any extra space for wraparound support services to foster underprivileged students' mental and physical health, as Mayor de Blasio is beginning to do with his School Renewal Program.

And the new charter schools do not always end up being the best neighbors. They might get new equipment or other perks not afforded the rest of the school building. The student or faculty bodies can be starkly different, such as the Citizens of the World school targeting wealthier families yet moving into a building housing a school where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

One teacher created the tumblr account Inside Colocation to chronicle all the issues stemming from a charter school being moved into a building that already housed three schools. In order to manage the newly reduced space, one existing school has had to do things such as having the Earth Science teacher use four different classrooms. Meanwhile, the charter received a floor previously used to teach 300 students and used it for a school of about 60. Year by year the charter school obtained even more classrooms despite the traditional public schools' enrollments increasing. The charter school got upgrades and benefits not extended to the existing schools, a phenomenon co-location critics say means separate and unequal schools. This included things like new computers and air conditioners and even renovated faculty bathrooms with the locks changed lest other teachers get any ideas. The charter even receives its own school lunches from Fresh Direct, as opposed to the cafeteria used by everyone else.

And yes, I do realize that forcing charter schools to pay for their own space may be a major financial squeeze, considering this is New York City and, as Jimmy McMillan can tell you, rent is quite high. ReadNet, for example, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a facility that wasn't even ready in time. Moreover, the fact that these schools receive public funding means that the taxpayers would effectively be paying.

However, maybe some of the wealthy folks backing the charter school movement can pony up some money or space for these schools. And no, I'm not talking about raising taxes on the wealthy to fund rent. Rather, the money from the charter lobby going into buying influence and winning over the public could be better spent on the charters themselves. (That's not to say that there aren't other things worthy of funding by means of an income tax increase.)

Now, before anyone gets down my throat, I know that the teacher's unions and their affiliated organizations also spend money on political activity and public campaigns, and the charter lobby has the same right to deliver its message. However, even if charter supporters don't divert the money they use on campaigning, surely some of the wealthy one percenters funding that activity have more lying around, or can hit up a friend that does, which could go toward the cost of charter school facilities. Or if not that, some of these backers must have big real estate holdings where a charter school could be housed, instead of looking for the city and state to hand over more and more of its resources.

When it comes to donations, the charter supporters have plenty of cash at their disposal. A query of New York State's campaign finance database reveals that the Coalition for Public Charter Schools PAC has spent $517,000 since 2007, of which over $280,000 was donations to candidates and other committees. The pro-charter Great Public Schools PAC has spent almost $140,000 since 2010. Then there's the donations from wealthy pro-charter individuals, who donated at least $800,000 this year in the gubernatorial election alone.

Charter supporters also have deep pockets when it comes to non-profit donations. Families for Excellent Schools (FES), the charter lobby's non-profit outfit in New York, has a board populated by major Wall Street players, as is the case at many individual schools. FES also had revenue of about $1 million in 2012, including over $700,000 in grants from the Walton Family Foundation in the past two years. If the Waltons, with all their wealth, aren't going to use their money to fairly compensate Walmart workers, then maybe at the very least they could spend some on school space for New York's charter schools. And this idea is not just some sort of populist rabble rousing on my part: the Walton Family Foundation already has a grant program that does this.

Another potential way of helping is requiring wealthy developers to include space for charter schools. Again, this is not some pipe dream: it is fairly common to require school space for approval of huge developments. So perhaps this can be pushed more aggressively. Maybe these charter backers could even twist the arms of any developer friends to voluntarily give space, instead of it taking a drawn out ULURP negotiation.

I know the United Federation of Teachers is a popular punching bag, going back at least to the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper, when UFT founder Albert Shanker starts a nuclear war that destroys America. However, one has to objectively look at the facts before demonizing the UFT and lionizing charter schools. We must give traditional unionized schools credit where credit is due, instead of using selective data to imply things that are largely false or undetermined. Hand in hand with this credit must include respect for the unionized schools' class space, instead of squeezing their resources on the gamble that a new charter school will be among the fraction that end up outperforming their traditional counterparts.

I'm not saying charter schools do not have a place in education reform. People may not realize that even the UFT supports charter schools, assuming they have transparency and fairness. This includes an even playing field when it comes to allocation of resources. If wealthy backers like the Walton family want taxpayer funds for their charter school pet projects, maybe they can also put up some of their own money and resources.