Charter schools and the new urbanism

Ask
almost any leader of a growing urban charter school about their biggest
worries, and real estate is likely to be at the top of the list. City-dwelling
young parents want schools that are convenient to their homes and—increasingly—public
transit. Government has (appropriately) high expectations of school buildings
but provides little to no money for charter school facilities in most
jurisdictions. Educators and school leaders want all of the above to provide a
fantastic experience for their students—without breaking the bank. This is not
something the real estate market can provide in most cities. 

Newark skyline II
Cities like Newark, New Jersey are experimenting with creative uses of space to improve education options.
Photo by William F. Yurasko.

To
make the problem even more difficult, city centers are redeveloping, with
entire neighborhoods gentrifying, building mixed-use housing and innovative
commercial spaces. Young professionals who a generation ago might have fled for
the ‘burbs as they settled into careers and started having children are now
staying. This has resulted in vibrant, revitalized neighborhoods—but the
pressure continues to build on large urban school districts to provide
high-quality seats to meet the needs created by this cultural shift. 

Increased
density and the creative reuse of space can help ease the space crunch. Public
charter schools have led the way on the latter front, motivated more by their
scanty facilities budgets than by far-sighted views on urban planning. District
schools have followed in a few cities (though redevelopments from school to
commercial space is more common).

Charters
in a few places are now taking this trend further. An office building in
Wilmington, DE, is being converted to house
several charter schools on nine floors
. In Newark, a developer is building
a mixed-use community
centered on three public charter schools, providing
classrooms as well as housing for teachers near NJIT and the New Jersey
Performing Arts Center. Projects like these can bring commerce, housing, and
schooling together in a way that is incredibly attractive to young urban
families.

Merely
being creative is not enough in many cities, however. Real estate is still very
expensive, due in part to bad development policies that artificially limit the
density of American cities. A new
book
by Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias (with the colorful title The Rent Is Too Damn High) argues that
deregulation would lead to increases in the number of housing units available
in attractive neighborhoods, reducing rents and making them naturally more diverse
and livable—at least for people who enjoy city life.

It's easy to see how denser
neighborhoods combined with creative development of mixed-use spaces could improve K-12 education.

Yglesias
only touches on schooling briefly, but it's easy to see how denser
neighborhoods combined with creative development of mixed-use spaces like
Newark's Teachers Village could improve K-12 education. Increasing the economic
diversity of schools is good
for the educational outcomes of poor kids
. Higher density also means more kinds of schools can open in a given neighborhood, each
serving their own market: arts-intensive schools, STEM-focused schools, schools
with values-based programs, and so forth.

Charter
leaders would no doubt agree with Yglesias that the rent is "too damn
high." In the neighborhoods that are urban renewal's success stories—vibrant,
economically diverse—the opportunities to also improve primary and secondary
education are significant. School leaders need help from policymakers here to
improve the availability of affordable space for teaching and learning, and to
plug schools into revitalized neighborhoods.

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