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Charters like mine need rent help

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Matthew Levey, New York Daily News

As charter school founders go, founders like David Levin and Eva Moskowitz — with growing networks of many schools — are the exception.

I am, in some ways, more typical of the 183-school charter sector in New York City. I’m starting a school with a few Brooklyn parents, using my savings — no, I did not work at a hedge fund — and with little institutional support.

My three kids attend public schools. My wife teaches at a high school in Chinatown. I’ve seen firsthand where the system works well and where it doesn’t. And, inspired by schools like Success Academies, I want to increase opportunities for even more kids.

If the state approves our application, we’ll put our beliefs to the test in District 13 — which includes downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill — starting in September 2015.

The big question is: Where will we go and how will we afford it?

For more than a year, Mayor de Blasio has railed against co-locating charters in public school buildings. His nixing of a space-sharing agreement for an excellent Success Academy school put that position under scrutiny; this week, de Blasio seemed to change course, saying he’ll place more charter schools in public buildings after all.

But my school still can’t count on free space. Which means we will need every dollar of public funding allocated to each student.

That’s why the state Senate’s plan to offer all city charter schools true funding equity — a counterweight to the mayor’s proposal to charge some charters rent — is critical.

The Senate would provide an allowance for rent to equalize charters’ per-student funding with what public schools receive. That would help homegrown schools like ours make a go of it, especially in our startup phase.

In our first year, we calculate that renting the space we’ll need will cost $525,000. And that assumes we find a generous landlord in Brooklyn. This is the equivalent of roughly 10 teachers.

In our second year, rent could rise to $854,000.

Those additional teachers could be used to further instruction. Alternatively, we could buy books and art supplies and pay for field trips with the money.

Rent would take nearly $3,500 of our $13,800 annual, per-pupil funding. That’s something traditional district schools aren’t on the hook for. Their buildings were constructed years ago and generally don’t “cost” the taxpayer anything but maintenance.

We’ll have to pay both.

Sure, we’ve thought of ways to make do if forced to pay. We’d contribute less to our employees’ retirement funds. Some staff, like our social worker and special-ed coordinator, would work part-time. But it’s possible the numbers just wouldn’t add up. Without space to start and grow, we’d disappoint hundreds of Brooklyn families that have expressed interest in our school.

Charter schools were envisioned as zones of experimentation, where new ideas could grow into best practices that would be shared across many schools.

That’s what we aim to offer. The neighborhood where we hope to open sorely needs innovation. Last year, just 39% of elementary students in this area passed their state tests.

Some question our focus on a comprehensive, international curriculum that builds background knowledge and cultural literacy. They say it won’t work.

We’ll see. Either way, our efforts will deepen our understanding of what works in education.

Too often, we reduce important questions of education policy to emotional appeals. Some seize on Moskowitz’s salary as supposed proof of everything that’s wrong with reform. Others see the dread hand of United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in every failure of our district schools.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Innovation requires new entrants, willing to challenge existing beliefs — who constantly ask “Why?” when told “You can’t do that.” Who look at the long odds of a poor child from an immigrant home finishing college and say, “I’ll try.”

We want that chance.