In a move some called visionary and others called insulting, the Buffalo, N.Y., school board has decided to explore the possibility of having outside groups run a network of charter schools authorized by the district.
The board’s decision to commission a study on the issue was driven by frustration with trying to improve schools for the district’s 44,000 students as funding dwindles. State budget cuts are fueling a projected $68 million deficit in the district’s proposed $491 million budget for fiscal year 2004.
“The need keeps rising and our finances keep sinking,” said Jack Coyle, the president of the school board. “So, is there anything we can do to give us better use of our limited funds?”
The answer to that question might lie in the study, which board members hope will be completed in June.
The board’s unanimous vote on March 26 bolstered a growing perception that Buffalo is clearing a unique path for itself in New York state’s charter school movement. Although charter schools have been approved by the state, last year Buffalo became the first district to approve a charter school. Those actions by New York’s second-largest school district carry a potent symbolic value, charter school advocates say.
“By and large, districts have regarded chartering as a threat,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a charter school researcher and the president of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consulting and research group. “To see a sizable district regard them as a tool [for improvement] could turn some heads and get people thinking.”
But the decision to commission the study sparked controversy, virtually guaranteeing that any future decision to go ahead with multiple charter schools would generate more heat.
“Teachers are insulted, because they feel the board of education is supposed to be educating our students, not abrogating their responsibility and turning them over to charters,” said Philip B. Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a 3,800-member affiliate of the National Education Association. “They also resent the fact that charters will drain money from the Buffalo public schools.”
When a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, most of the per-pupil state aid for that child—in Buffalo’s case, about $8,800—is rerouted to the charter school. That feature has prompted complaints that charters rob traditional schools of needed funds.
Charter school advocates often counter that district-run schools save money by having fewer students to educate. But personnel in regular public schools contend that overhead costs remain just as high, and must be paid for with less per-pupil aid.
Mr. Coyle emphasized that the board voted only to explore the matter. If the study makes it clear that granting charters would not benefit the district, no further action would be taken, he said.
He wants, however, to check into the possibility that charter schools might offer the district a way to strengthen accountability for performance, because they must fulfill the terms of their contracts or face revocation of their charters. He also wants to examine their potential for greater financial efficiency and for granting schools more autonomy.
Peter Murphy, the vice president of the New York State Charter Schools Resource Center, an Albany-based nonprofit organization that helps charter schools get started, said the district could save money by moving into the role of overseer of charter school boards. It also could recoup money by selling transportation or food services back to the charter schools, he said.
Statewide, 38 charter schools enrolling about 11,000 students are in operation, he said. Eighteen are in New York City. Five, enrolling about 1,800 students, are operating in Buffalo.