And so, last summer, Julie Zuckerman, the principal of a highly regarded public elementary school - Central Park East 1 in East Harlem - applied to open a new elementary school on the other side of Manhattan, in Washington Heights. Her plan was to create something truly rare: an urban school not focused on standardized testing.
Ms. Zuckerman, who worked in education as a principal and teacher for nearly 30 years and has a doctorate from Columbia, was given preliminary approval for the school in October. On Jan. 6, she was one of 30 people invited to the Education Department's headquarters at Tweed Courthouse, where Cathleen P. Black, the current chancellor, congratulated them for being chosen to run new schools.
On Jan. 19, Ms. Zuckerman was informed that her school - to be called Castle Bridge - would be located in a vacant space at Public School 115 in Washington Heights. "We are all systems go," wrote Elizabeth Rose of the Education Department. On Jan. 27, Ms. Zuckerman was informed by Alex Shub, another department official, that she would be getting $40,000 in start-up money. "Sounds like you are doing all the right things," Mr. Shub wrote in a Feb. 14 e-mail.
And then, a few days later, Ms. Rose called to say that everything had changed. Ms. Zuckerman would not be getting the space at P.S. 115. Instead, Marc Sternberg, a deputy superintendent, had decided to award that space to KIPP, the biggest, richest charter school chain in the country.
That set off sparks. There is a quiet but fierce battle going on in education today, between the unions that represent the public school teachers and the hedge-fund managers who finance the big charter chains, between those who trust teachers to assess a child's progress and those who trust standardized tests, and occasionally it flares out into the open over something as seemingly minor as the location of a school.
On one side is KIPP, a nonprofit organization with 99 charter schools nationwide, including seven in New York City. It is a favorite of the Broad, Gates and Walton foundations; in the last four years, KIPP has raised $160 million to supplement the public funds it receives ($13,527 per student in New York).
On the other side is Ms. Zuckerman, who has followed in the footsteps of Central Park East's founder, Deborah Meier, one of the best-known education innovators in America.
When Ms. Zuckerman was told the earliest she would be getting a site for her school was 2012, her supporters were furious, but not too surprised. "Everyone knows the D.O.E. favors charters," said Kevin Guzman, who, along with his wife, Melissa, runs a preschool in Washington Heights and has circulated petitions on behalf of Ms. Zuckerman's school. "It was David versus Goliath."
Ms. Zuckerman refused to comment for this article. However, interviews with her supporters, including fellow principals, teachers, parents, community activists and elected officials, made it possible to piece together her story.
I also obtained e-mails that Education Department officials sent to Ms. Zuckerman.
They were provided by a staff member of an elected official. The staff member was sympathetic to Ms. Zuckerman but did not want to be named because of fear of retaliation.
Mr. Sternberg also did not respond to requests for an interview. But he wrote in an e-mail, "We can always improve our process around planning," and added, "KIPP has run some of the best schools in New York City for 15 years, and we think this school is going to be an excellent option for Upper Manhattan families."
He denied there was any favoritism.
There are major differences between Central Park East 1 and KIPP schools. Central Park East is known as a progressive school. Learning is often done through group projects. Instead of survey courses, students are encouraged to go deeper on fewer topics. There is little test prep.
The KIPP chain is famous for long school days that end at 5 p.m., as well as Saturday school. Performance on standardized tests is a central focus, and test prep is extensive. Courses tend to cover more ground, but do not go into as much depth.
There are also similarities between Central Park East and the four KIPP schools serving elementary-age children in New York. Both Central Park East and the KIPP schools have similar poverty rates: 74 percent of Central Park East students get subsidized lunches; two of the KIPP schools have higher poverty rates and two have lower rates. Academic performance is comparable. Two of the KIPP schools scored better than Central Park East on the 2010 state English tests; two scored worse. In math, KIPP is considerably stronger with three of the four KIPP schools doing better than Central Park East on state math tests.
Both are in demand. KIPP has 2,000 students on waiting lists for its seven schools, said Steve Mancini, KIPP's spokesman.
At Central Park East, 180 were on last year's waiting list for 12 openings. The Guzmans, whose preschool, the Small Idea, also follows a progressive philosophy, say that for several years many families with children at their preschool have applied to Central Park East, but none have been lucky enough to be selected in the school lottery.
When it comes to resources to open new schools, Central Park East is badly overmatched. According to its most recent tax forms, KIPP had a $1.7 million school expansion budget for New York in 2008. KIPP also has many well-paid executives working on new-school development, including David Levin, the KIPP New York superintendent, who makes $296,751 a year; eight other New York staff members earn $104,299 to $150,950.
At a public hearing in Washington Heights in February, Mr. Levin brought along two busloads of supporters dressed in KIPP T-shirts.
There were five people from Central Park East, including Ms. Zuckerman, at the same meeting. Ms. Zuckerman had no money or paid staff to fill out the abundant paperwork required for a new school. She did the planning in her spare time and got help from parent volunteers.
The Guzmans, who live in Washington Heights, have been the primary neighborhood organizers for Ms. Zuckerman's school. They are volunteers who make a combined salary of $42,000 from their preschool and live in a back room of the school.
KIPP officials appear confident that the space in P.S. 115 is theirs. Though the decision will not be final until an April 28 vote by the city's Panel for Educational Policy, KIPP posted recruiting flyers making it sound like a done deal: KIPP Star Elementary/Washington Heights/Now enrolling kindergarten/Housed within the P.S. 115 building.
Mr. Mancini, the KIPP spokesman, said that as soon as they realized the mistake, flyers were changed to say "proposed location." (He provided a photo as confirmation.)
It took Ms. Zuckerman two weeks to get an appointment with Mr. Sternberg to ask why he had taken away her school site. She brought along three people for support: Mr. Guzman; Celia Oyler, an associate professor from Teachers College at Columbia University; and Marcia Sells, a lawyer who has a daughter attending Central Park East. At one point, Ms. Zuckerman asked to have the vacant space in nearby Intermediate School 90 - a school that had been mentioned earlier in the year as a possible location - if she could not have P.S. 115. She was told that I.S. 90 was being kept vacant for at least a year, so KIPP could eventually use the space to expand its school.
Castle Bridge was supposed to serve 200 students, including 10 percent who have a parent in prison. No other school in the city is known to seek out this group of children.
Several elected officials, including Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, have lobbied the chancellor to reverse the decision. Mr. Stringer spoke with Ms. Black twice last week. "She owned up to the fact that mistakes were made," Mr. Stringer said. "She said she was looking for ways to solve the problem - I was pleased."
A spokesman said the chancellor declined to comment. However, Mr. Sternberg did appear to get more focused last week.
He said he could not find space for September but promised Castle Bridge would open. "The best long-term solution for Castle Bridge," Mr. Sternberg wrote, "is to make sure it opens in 2012 with permanent and adequate space."
Ms. Zuckerman's friends have urged her to get any promises in writing and counseled caution, reminding her how much the Department of Education's word is worth.