Charter school leaders say they're seeking an open dialogue with New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and hoping he'll reconsider his proposals to curb their growth and start charging rent to those the city decides can afford it.
De Blasio ran on a platform that stressed focusing resources on district schools that serve 93 percent of public school students, and not showing "favor" to charters as he said Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done.
As de Blasio prepares to take office and name a new schools chancellor, charter proponents and the mayor-elect's team are sending out diplomatic signals, preparing for an uneasy relationship that may trigger legal disputes over how much rent can be charged.
Leaders of charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated, argue that some of their students are part of the underserved population that de Blasio vowed to fight for.
"I am hopeful to engage and work with Mayor-elect de Blasio given that his campaign was about the tale of two cities," said Morty Ballen, founder of the Explore Schools charter network in Brooklyn, "and many of the children who attend our charter schools across the city are part of that second city that he wants to help and support."
De Blasio, through his spokeswoman Lis Smith, similarly said he will work closely with parents and educators toward "a more honest and inclusive" decision process on charter schools' future.
The city now has 183 charter schools, whose ranks have grown by an average of 11 per year since the first one in 1999. About 70,000 of the city's 1.1 million public school students attend charters.
The mayor-elect, the powerful United Federation of Teachers union and other critics say that charters sometimes cherry-pick higher-performing students and exclude special-needs ones, and that they employ mostly nonunion staff.
Charter supporters say that they offer parents a choice when there often is no other good alternative, that the charter waiting list is 50,000-students long and that charters shouldn't be charged rent when other public schools, including specialized and magnet institutions, don't pay it.
Public polls show voters generally support charter schools. A Quinnipiac University survey last month found 39 percent of likely voters said the next mayor should increase their numbers, 35 percent want the same amount and 18 percent want fewer. Voters were split 47 percent to 43 percent in favor of charging charters rent.
As many as 66 additional charters can open in the city before the current cap under state law is reached. De Blasio opposes raising the cap.
He also has called for halting placement of new charters in public school buildings -- about 60 percent of charters now operate in Department of Education-owned locations -- and charging rent on a sliding scale to those that can afford it.
"He has been clear that he supports a moratorium on co-locations until this [talks with the charters] takes place," Smith said in a statement, "but he will review all current proposals and make the best decision for the schools and students in the building on a case-by-case basis." One charter leader sees a chance for common cause with the next mayor on one of his central proposals, expanding prekindergarten programs.
De Blasio could help lobby the state to give charters the right to offer "high-quality" pre-K programs, said Ian Rowe, chief executive of Public Prep Network, which has three charter schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, with two more set to open in the fall.
"We would love to start that dialogue with him," Rowe said.
De Blasio has not detailed how rent would be calculated. Some charter leaders point to logistic and legal hurdles, such as imposing rent charges in the middle of the school year before the fee can be budgeted and adhering to the 1998 New York State Charter Schools Act, which states the space shall be provided "at cost."
New York University education professor Pedro Noguera said de Blasio legally could end rent-free occupancy immediately in public school buildings.
"Charter school issues are really about real estate," Noguera said. "Since the DOE [Department of Education] controls the space, if he wants to limit the number of schools that open up, he pretty much can."
James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center, which guides charters in opening and operating, was among the first to publicly congratulate de Blasio on the night of his Nov. 5 election.
Merriman would not discuss whether he's spoken with de Blasio since, but said he's ready to work toward the "shared mission" of providing good "seats" for every student. He predicted any moratorium would be short-lived once charter leaders, the mayor-elect and his chancellor together "arrive at the conclusion that you need every possible tool to make those good seats."