How to Be a Charter School that Pays No Rent in New York City

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April 25, 2011; Source: New York Times | The founder of the Growing Up Green charter school in Queens has plenty of stories about the financial challenges he has faced in getting his operation going. A big hurdle was finding a space, hopefully in a building owned and run by the Education Department where Growing Up Green wouldn’t have to pay rent.

As an independent charter school – unaffiliated with one of the charter “chains” – Growing Up Green has had a much harder time finding free space than its chain counterparts. In New York City, 67 percent of chain charters receive free space in public school buildings, compared with 51 percent of independent schools, according to the New York Times.

Which comes first? The space or the students? Because NYC charters are paid $13,527 per pupil, waiting until the Department found a building might have meant losing a year of students, faculty, and school system payments. So Growing Up Green started off by renting space in a closed Catholic school at $320,000.

To make a go of it, Growing Up Green has 28 rather than the intended 25 pupils per class. The three extra pupils per class adds up to 27 additional pupils in the school, generating $365,229 in school department revenues – which just about covers the Catholic school rent.

Growing up Green is an independent charter school, not affiliated with one of the national “chains” such as KIPP (which has 99 schools nationwide). KIPP also has seven charter schools in New York City and pays no rent for them. Achievement First and Uncommon Schools – both chains – have 10 and 12 rent-free charter schools respectively.

Is the difference because the KIPPs of the world are big enough to deploy staff teams to identify and negotiate for space, while independent school operators like the founder of Growing Up Green are doing soup-to-nuts tasks from negotiations for space to development of curriculum on their own? Or is it because the chains are also much better funded.

Gotham Schools, a news site focused on New York City public schools, suggests that charter schools affiliated with national or regional chains do much better in terms of accessing nongovernmental – corporate and foundation –sources: “that schools tied to charter management organizations took in at least $1,734 per pupil in philanthropic dollars in 2009 . . . [while] independent schools brought in $994 per pupil – a $740 difference.”—Rick Cohen