A Note on the Politics of Charter School Co-Location

I'm back from my Alaska jaunt refreshed and renewed, but can't help making one last point about Steven Brill's Class Warfare, this fall's big ed reform book, which I reviewed in The Nation. A hallmark of Brill's education journalism for the past two years has been that he visits charter schools, never traditional public schools, when he wants to demonstrate what an excellent school looks like. In Class Warfare, the only traditional public school on which Brill reports at any length is PS 149 in Manhattan, which is co-located with one of the Harlem Success Academy charter schools. 

Brill paints PS 149 in an unflattering light, and I won't go into depth here on the debate over whether his portrait is accurate and fair or not. What I will say is that visiting only public schools co-located with the new generation of charters would bias any reporter against traditional public schools. Why? More successful neighborhood schools are better able to resist co-location with charters, both because they tend to be oversubscribed–more parents want to enroll their kids in these schools than there are seats available, meaning there aren't empty classrooms around for charters to use–and because successful schools also tend to have more politically active and connected parents, teachers, and administrators, who are able to lobby against co-locations. 

Click here to read about how two politically savvy, high-poverty public schools in Fort Greene, Brooklyn–one of which also has an excellent academic repuation–were able to resist co-location with a high-quality, progressive model charter school.

In any case, this is why co-location, which is spreading nationwide, is such an effective political tool: It sets up easy comparisons between charter schools and some of the least effective neighborhood schools.

Update: Sara Mead replies, and she and I agree: There are good and bad schools of all sorts, and reform shouldn't be a rhetorical war over "charters vs. traditionals." My concern is the media narrative, epitomized by Brill's reporting and Waiting for Superman, in which the only excellent high-poverty schools that get any attention are charters. We know this isn't the case, because traditional public schools like George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Ala., PS 83 in Harlem, and the Harriet Tubman School in Newark are changing kids lives (and raising their test scores) everyday. Why does it matter to show the public examples of all kinds of different successful schools? Because if we don't, we undermine taxpayer support for public schools and promote over-simplified ideas about what makes a school successful (ex; no unions!) when we know that the calculus is actually far more complicated (ex; school culture, strong leadership, community outreach, rich curricula, and so on and so forth).

4 thoughts on “A Note on the Politics of Charter School Co-Location

  1. Gideon

    Please do not make such general pronouncements on co-locations without supporting data. Your narrative sounds compelling, but is not accurate. There are hundreds of co-located schools in New York City, many of which are not charter schools at all. The fact that space is available in a building does not necessarily indicate the traditional school (or schools) in the building is failing. Many have specifically chosen to be a certain size or another school may have closed or moved leaving available space to be used by another school (charter or traditional). Moreover, co-locations have gone smoothly in many instances. You are correct that co-location is a political tool; it is one that pits parents against parents, which distracts from the real problem: the districts which allow failing schools to persist year after year.

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  2. Dana

    Thanks for the comment, Gideon. Of course I am aware of the many older co-located schools within the system: special-ed schools, magnets, G&T programs, etc. When it comes to Brill’s book and his reporting more generally, however, he is looking solely at the newer generation of co-locations, more specifically at “no excuses” charters in the Success and KIPP networks.

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  3. joemac53

    In Massachusetts, charters were sold as “experimental” or “laboratory” schools which would develop pedagogy that could then migrate into the public schools. They have turned into places where parents could get a private school experience on the public dime.
    One “successful” charter in my area is a high school with “IB for all” as their mission. Students who cannot cut that tough curriculum are returned to their regular high schools. Some experiment.

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