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Do Colocated Schools Create Inequality?
Leadership Insights

Together and Unequal: The Conflict Surrounding School Colocation

By The Room 241 Team June 25, 2014
Do Colocated Schools Create Inequality?

By Monica Fuglei

As the nation celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education last month, education leaders reflected on the development of America’s post-segregation public school system. In their speeches commemorating the event, Arne Duncan and Eric Holder both celebrated our post-Brown v. Board society.

Both men recognized the considerable challenges that still remain to provide equal education for all students. However, one topic overlooked by many is the increasingly difficult issue of school colocation.

School districts and the portfolio management strategy

Many large-city school districts have adopted a portfolio strategy to manage schools, which encourages the following:

  • Autonomy for individual traditional public schools
  • Increase the number of charter schools
  • Reform or close low-performing schools
  • Assessment as a portion of school evaluation

In New York City, disagreements over portfolio districting and the increase in charter schools is driving serious political conflict between former Mayor Bloomberg, current Mayor de Blasio, and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy, a chain of New York charter schools. While supporters point to the effectiveness of charter schools and their significant support by grants funded through local businesses, opponents cite the lack of oversight on charters and their pull from public school funding as serious issues.

In Harlem in particular, charter schools have a higher number of suspensions as well as a high rate of transferring IEP (Individualized Education Program) and special needs students to traditional public schools. These often occur after census dates, which means the students do not carry their funding with them, creating an even greater financial burden for traditional public school budgets. 

The roots of school colocation

Now surrounded by discussions of fairness and equality, colocation has its roots in a pragmatic solution. In many urban school districts, the advent of and focus on charter schools led to declines in enrollment in traditional schools. Charter schools are wildly popular with parents, which leaves many traditional public schools functioning in buildings far too large for their current enrollments and charter schools searching for a home.

School buildings could and would house a variety of schools, maximizing the real-estate footprint of a school district. While this appears to be a completely reasonable solution, in actuality, colocation emphasizes the differences in funding and management that exist between traditional and charter schools. While students are no longer separate, they are also not equal.

The haves and have-nots are easy to identify in colocated schools

As charter schools enter shared space, the lack of bureaucracy and red tape that public schools face is readily apparent. For example, charter school administrators can order (and afford) upgrades like air conditioning, new paint for their spaces and remodeled bathrooms. While this advantage might seem minor, it creates visible differences between the public and charter schools housed in the same building.

Public school students in the building see these visible differences and wonder why their school goes without. The significant amount of private investment in charters allows them a variety of economic advantages as well, leading to catered lunches, upgraded technology, and a variety of other signifiers of their differences from public schools. This creates a clear impression of either being a charter school “have” or a traditional public school “have-not”.

A recent photo essay at MSNBC, “A Day in the Life of a Divided School,” illustrates these differences. The photos contrast PS 149’s crowded classrooms and unused violins in a storage closet — the consequence of a music program closed due to lack of funding — with Success Charter students shown in crisp uniforms with matching backpacks and the space and opportunity to play chess. 

Power struggles in a shared building: Public school teachers v. charter school teachers

While it is reasonable for charter schools to demand what is best for their students, it hardly seems fair when that appears to be done at the expense of the public students — and teachers — in the same building. As anyone who has ever had a roommate knows, shared space not only highlights socioeconomic differences, but also creates power struggles over simple geography.

Inside Colocation is a Tumblr blog created by an anonymous teacher to document their experience in a traditional public school that is in the process of adding a charter. It shows evidence of conflicts including charter teachers’ demand for planning period silence, the charter rerouting foot traffic by locking certain doors and exits, and disrespect for the public school teachers’ supplies and property.

While colocation pragmatically solves the issue of real estate, once witnessed in action it appears to be a fairly troublesome practice that results in highlighting the disadvantages of  traditional public school students. That said, ending the practice of colocation does not end the economic realities that create stark funding differences between charter and traditional public schools.

Whether these schools are housed together or separately, it seems quite clear that there is a significant matter of inequality brewing in this system. If our goal is to serve all public school students, it may be necessary to reassess the charter school system to ensure that students are truly equal.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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