Since becoming New York City schools chancellor six months ago, Richard Carranza has made clear that he has a broad vision for reform. But the leader of the nation’s largest school system appears to have only a tenuous understanding of how complicated that system is, and his many erroneous statements suggest that he is in over his head.
Last week, Carranza attended a town hall meeting in District 5, which includes most of Central Harlem. Fielding questions about school funding, equity, and charter schools, he presented a version of reality at odds with the facts. “If you want any evidence of the haves and have nots, I want you to look where resources have been invested in the past,” he said. “I will tell you that Harlem, and the Bronx and Central Brooklyn, the Rockaways . . . these communities have been under-served for years.”
He’s wrong. For years, per-pupil expenditures have been significantly higher in poorer New York City communities, including the ones that Carranza mentions. The most recent school-based expenditure reports demonstrate this clearly. Districts 16 and 23, representing Central Brooklyn, receive the most funding per student, at $29,668 and $27,191 respectively, as compared with the system-wide average of $24,533. Districts 7, 5, and 4, covering Harlem and the South Bronx, are the next best-funded districts, followed by 32 and 19, representing Bushwick and East New York. These seven districts all receive per-pupil funding above the citywide average.
The emphasis on funding the poorest and most disadvantaged districts is not new to the de Blasio administration. The city’s Independent Budget Office reported that in 2013–14, the last year in which Michael Bloomberg’s Department of Education set budgets, “the largest per pupil allocations [were] found in the South Bronx (district 7), Central Brooklyn (district 16), Upper Manhattan (districts 4 and 5), and the Lower East Side (district 1).” The funding disparity between districts has to do, in part, with school size: Queens has the system’s largest schools and receives comparatively less funding, while smaller schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn—the result of the Bloomberg-era focus on closing failing schools and creating smaller-scaled “academies”—require higher per-pupil funding in order to cover overhead. In addition, as the IBO explains, “part of the difference in allocations relates to the relative socio-economic status of the communities within each district.”
Carranza got the story of how schools are funded exactly backwards. He then connected his confused argument to the debate about charter schools and the neighborhoods where they get sited. “There are no schools, no schools, that you can point to in the city of New York that are historically well funded where you see a promulgation of charter schools,” the chancellor told the Harlem parents. “Where do you see a promulgation of charter schools? It started in under-funded communities.”
Carranza appears to be suggesting that charters exploit an imbalance in school funding in order to gain a foothold in underserved communities. Again, the facts run counter to his narrative. School districts that receive the least per-pupil funding have the lowest penetration by charter schools, while districts with the highest per-pupil funding—Harlem, the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn—have correspondingly higher percentages of students enrolled in charters. Charter school enrollment in Districts 5 and 16—two of the highest-funded in the system—are 41.5 percent and 35.6 percent, respectively, much higher than the citywide average of roughly 8 percent. The correlation is not exact, but generally speaking, per-pupil spending is greater, and charter school enrollment higher, in poorer communities.
Carranza seems to agree with a charge frequently made by charter critics—that charters operate parasitically, draining resources from impoverished school districts. But charters receive less funding than district schools, both on a district-by-district basis and even when charter and district schools operate within the same building. The IBO reports that, for charter schools occupying space in Department of Education buildings, “2016-2017 expenditures . . . total $18,933 per pupil, which is $1,145, or 5.7 percent, lower than per-pupil spending in traditional DOE schools.” And charter school funding growth, according to the same source, has failed to keep pace with funding for district schools. Charter schools, in many cases, at least, appear to do more with less.
Carranza has landed in New York with an eye toward implementing social-justice-based education reform. But he has revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of the city’s demographic realities, and of parents’ tolerance for racially inflected politics. The chancellor needs to step back and get a solid grasp of the facts before he begins making major policy commitments based on false premises.
Photo: Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School