The uproar over charging rent to New York City charter schools proves that control over facilities is a powerful but easily misused governance tool. Mayor Bill De Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Farina don’t like the people who operate certain charter schools, or the philanthropists who donate money to those schools. So they want to impose big costs on them, more than $2,300 per child per year (over $470,000 for a school of 250 students), and cancel leases for planned new schools.
In the logic of politics, these actions make sense. The mayor was openly hostile to charter schools in his campaign, and he won. Key supporters, including the teachers union and middle-class parents, hate having to share large buildings with charter schools. Prominent charter operators and their financial supporters annoyingly flaunted their schools’ success.
What big city politico wouldn’t try to settle the score? At least the mayor and chancellor haven’t made absurd claims that these actions would protect kids from ineffective schools. After all, they aren’t closing the lanes to charters entirely, just putting out a few cones to slow things down.
The New York City rent situation illustrates a conflict of interest in traditional school system governance. The people who control the school district can protect some schools and undermine others for reasons other than providing the best set of schools possible for the city’s children. They can use control over facilities—including raising rents and forcing disruptive moves—as a way of rewarding friends and whacking enemies.
Of course, New York City is only the most transparent case of politically biased control over school buildings. In most cities, district leaders let existing schools use facilities rent-free, whether those schools are effective or not. District leaders don’t consider whether the facilities housing the least effective schools could be reassigned to more promising school operators. Charters have to find and pay for their own facilities. Even district-employed teachers and principals with ideas for new schools face an uphill fight to get control of a school building.
Taxpayers may not realize that, too often, the money they’re contributing to fund school facilities is used to protect weak schools, prevent innovation, or settle political scores. If they did, they might demand a remedy.
There is one. Ownership of school buildings could be taken out of districts’ hands. Public school buildings could be owned and maintained by a public real estate trust. The trust could lease space to any publicly funded school at a price that reflects the real costs of occupancy. CRPE researchers proposed this idea years ago, and Nelson Smith recently expanded on it.
To make this work, all public schools would receive an equal per-pupil share of the funds that now go to building construction and maintenance. Schools could rent from any source they chose, but the real estate trust would buy, sell, and fix up buildings in order to offer good spaces at the lowest possible rents.
Splitting off control of facilities would let public officials responsible for education focus on the one task that should concern them—making sure that every child in the district has the best schooling options that can be obtained from any provider. This would also force honest accounting for costs, eliminating the pretense that some schools get their facilities at no cost to anybody.
An independent real estate trust would also create positive incentives for schools: to occupy only the space they need, and to welcome co-tenants in a building big enough to share. It would also create an incentive for innovations that could reduce lease expenses—for instance, blended-learning programs that could reduce the number of days per week a school uses its whole facility.
The drama over New York City school facilities underscores the need to adhere to an important principle for governance reform: If public officials regularly misuse a power, it should be taken away from them.