Aug 1, 2011

Settling Our Issues: Conversation, Not Litigation [Or, Please Don't Sue Us Anymore]

James D. Merriman is Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Charter School Center, and is one of New York's leading experts in charter school law, authorizing, and operations. Before joining the NYC Charter School Center in 2007, he worked at the Walton Family Foundation where he helped develop and implement the foundation's grant making in the charter school sector. James came to Walton after serving as executive director of the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York (SUNY), an authorizer of charter schools in New York State. In this role, he helped create a structure in which a high quality charter school sector could flourish.

New York State court recently handed down an important victory to families seeking better public schools and to Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to infuse the system with higher quality options. The lawsuit in question, brought by the local teachers union (UFT) and the New York state chapter of the NAACP, sought to block the city from, among other things, co-locating 15 public charter schools with district schools in public school buildings. The groups argued that the city's space sharing arrangements for district and charter schools (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) disproportionately favored the charters and created a separate and unequal situation. This characterization was inaccurate and caused great uncertainty for the 7,000 families whose children were supposed to attend these schools in the fall.

In his ruling, the judge stated that the UFT and NAACP could not show that they were likely to prevail. It's a precedent-setting ruling given that, until charters receive funding for facilities like all other public schools do, they'll continue to need access to public space in which to open, expand and serve their students. This ruling makes that a little easier.

The question is where do we go from here? School leaders and teachers are focusing on opening their doors in a month's time. But the UFT and NAACP have vowed to continue their court battle.

This entire case was built on the premise that reasonable adults within schools can't resolve space-sharing issues themselves. We don’t believe that premise.

Over the course of this case, charter and district leaders from affected schools have been coming together to find thoughtful, commonsense solutions to dividing up space. Indeed, by the time the case came up, the space-sharing arrangements under consideration by the judge had already changed on the ground. Meanwhile, conversations were taking place about how to improve the whole process moving forward. Bill de Blasio, for example, the public advocate and a possible 2013 mayoral candidate, went so far as to release a set of recommendations for future co-locations. While we don't agree with all of his ideas, his acknowledgement that charters schools have a right to public space and his attempts to push for solutions instead of lawsuits is very encouraging.

It is disappointing to see the fights over space detract from the real issue at hand -- improving public schools for all children. Sadly, these disputes don't appear to be over. Just days after the ruling, opponents filed yet another lawsuit challenging co-location. This will mean more time and attention given to lawyers. We'll continue to fight in the courts, but we know teachers and leaders in great charter and great district schools will continue to work together to put students needs ahead of any others.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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