City Goes to Court Over Charter Schools

The city, the teachers union and the NAACP will square off in court Tuesday over plans to let 19 charter schools take space in the same buildings as regular schools. And, like most things in New York City, the feud is largely about real estate.

Complaints have been raised from Harlem to Coney Island as charter schools increasingly share buildings with public schools in an attempt by the city to maximize existing space rather than build new schools. But the teachers union, the NAACP and some parents accuse the city of violating a new state law that says co-locations involving charters must be equitable.

Sharing a Harlem School

The Harlem Success Academy 1 charter school is expanding, and that means taking two more classrooms from PS 149.

"Where will my two third grade class [go]?" asked PTA leader Sonya Hampton (Photo right). "Back down to the second floor with second grade? Or upstairs with middle school where they don't belong?"

The expansion plan has angered parents at PS 149, who already chafe against what they consider nicer lighting and carpets in the charter school.

Tavia Turner, whose four children attend the combined elementary and middle school, said she's seen negative consequences of sharing space with the charter.

"I have two children that eat lunch at 10:30 in the morning," Turner said. "I have one child that's not getting the services that he needs because the social worker that needs to work with him doesn't have a spot to work with him."

Complaints About Equity

PS 149 also shares its building with a special education school and a pre-school, and several charter parents dispute that they are getting advantages.

"The fact of the matter is, is that our classrooms actually possess less space per child than the schools that we co-locate with," said Genevieve Foster (Photo left), who has a daughter attending Harlem Success Academy 1 in the same building as PS 149.

"If you look at our classrooms we have more children," she said. "We have less space, and we're also receiving less money to really provide the resources necessary for our children. ... We can also say we have issues with space."

The Success Academy is a chain of charters run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. Recently, her organization used city data to conduct its own study of 81 charters that share space with regular schools. It found average class sizes in the district schools only went up by about one student over four years, which was no more than the citywide average.

The NAACP's Involvement

There's no doubt sharing isn't always easy, but charter parents accuse the teachers union and the NAACP of inflaming the situation. They note that the Success Academy renovated the playground for everyone at PS 149. And while they expect the teachers union to feel threatened by privately managed charters, they're confused by the NAACP's role in the lawsuit.

Last week, charter parent Kathy Kernizan attended a co-location hearing at PS 149 where she confronted the NAACP’s national president, Benjamin Jealous, and New York Conference President Hazel Dukes.

"Children in schools being overcrowded has been going on for too long," she said. "I will help you. I will fight with you. But you cannot fight against me. Who's going to be a member of the NAACP tomorrow? Who will you represent? Where have you been? We are here now, let's talk."

Kernizan was applauded by some charter parents in the auditorium while others from PS 149 made skeptical comments. The Brooklyn mom had traveled to the Harlem meeting because she worries about where her children will go to school if a court prevents charters from taking more space inside district schools. The city says 7,000 charter students will be in limbo.

Kernizan had gotten into a heated argument with Dukes outside the school. Dukes wouldn’t take questions from reporters. But she gave a passionate statement defending the lawsuit.

"I want parents to have choice," she told the audience of parents from the charters and PS 149. "That's their right. That's their parental right, we would never take it away. But it’s our right as a civil rights organization to guarantee every child, every child, that's even including charter children, that they have quality education."

The city denies any regular public schools are being treated unfairly by sharing space with charters. But in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s court date, it's been revising its plans so that the charters don't always have as much time in libraries, gyms, lunch rooms and other facilities they share with the district schools.

The United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP are also suing to stop the city from phasing-out 22 failing schools. The plaintiffs — who are joined by several parents — argue the schools should have gotten more help. They won a similar lawsuit last year. The city says it gave the schools additional help and teachers, but that they're still performing way below other schools with similar populations.