10/24/2013 05:49 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2013

Charter March Missed Mark

Locating charter schools in public buildings is a big issue in New York City's mayoral election. While of little consequence compared to other challenges facing the new mayor, so-called charter co-location is a litmus test for many voters. Opposing candidates Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota have highlighted their differences, and Success Academy Charters Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz, a former Democratic City Council member with mayoral ambitions, effectively organized her own troops in leading a recent Brooklyn Bridge march to demonstrate charters' electoral strength.

In our expensive real estate market, charter operators understandably want free space to pursue what, to them, are socially positive goals. But marching kids and parents to City Hall will not overturn election results. All three citywide Democratic nominees, likely winners in November, won primaries based in part on discouraging free space and expansion of charter schools. Charter torch-carriers lost.

There is no provision in law giving charters rent-free public space, and many local charters, like most peers nationally, pay for real estate. Co-location for charter chain operators in New York's public schools was a creative invention of the Bloomberg administration.

But charters have become hooked on rent-free space like teenagers sucking down 64-ounce sodas... loving the sugar, they want it, they need it, and they've come to believe they're entitled to it.

Taxpayers don't gain or lose from charters' use of public space. Recent reporting that charters save the city about $3,000 per year per pupil in pension costs is off-set by subsidies charters receive in free rent and associated costs.

But these arguments fail to grasp traditional public school parents' concerns of co-locations' impact on their children and the paradox of charters claiming a right to district space while maintaining independence from district governance.

The charter movement is based on a clear deal for designated public funds: autonomy from the public school system in return for accountability for student performance. They risk renewal of their charters, a type of contract, if performance falls short. But they have now built into that deal a self-serving business model based on a public subsidy rejected by the Legislature.

Marchers' simplistic motto that "charters are public schools" is true only because they already receive public funds. But they operate privately. There is no right to free co-location. Any claim to the contrary is bogus.

This is not to deny some charters' good works. Plenty of not-for-profit organizations serve substantial public purposes and, in recognition, receive substantial public funding. Free rent is not provided, though this would likely yield increased funds for service provision. But that is not how the system works. These agencies pay for space through fundraising and other revenue.

How can charters' desire for pubic space be accommodated by the city? After all the hollering, it would be easy. If public schools have available space, a matter of some dispute, charters can either pay reasonable rent or offset the city's costs with "in lieu of" payments, effectively paying their share of utilities and other services. Despite cries of "Wolf!" based on their current business model, such expenses are not likely to "annihilate" charters (Lhota's phrase) and the income could be shared with partnering traditional publics, thus giving those schools an incentive to co-locate. This might be a likely starting point for Comptroller-in-Waiting Scott Stringer whose office will likely demand co-location contracts, consistent with his official duties.

No more and no less should be expected of charters which already receive public funding deemed reasonable by the State Legislature. Any claim to further support requires a march on Albany, not City Hall.

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David C. Bloomfield is professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.