The Buffalo, N.Y., school board has decided to aggressively court development of new charter schools, a step that places the district in the vanguard of a movement that has deeply divided education advocates.
By voting to cultivate a diverse “portfolio” of charter schools, the school board intends to expand the educational choices it offers to parents, maximize its influence over what types of charter schools open within district boundaries, and assert responsibility for how they perform.
Of the 11 charter schools operating in the Buffalo area, only one was authorized by the district itself. The rest were approved by the New York state board of regents or the state university system. Charter schools are public schools, but operate independently of many district rules.
With a Dec. 3 vote, the Buffalo school board decided to authorize the next batch of charters itself, which means evaluating school proposals, granting schools permission to open, and holding operators accountable for results. It hopes to issue requests for proposals by spring for an as-yet-undecided number of schools that will open in the fall of 2005.
The move virtually ensures that the 43,000-student district will wade deep into the business of monitoring charter schools, and possibly selling services back to them. Buffalo’s deliberate step to take charge of charter school development—rather than play geographic host to those approved by the state—has drawn nationwide notice.
Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates nontraditional arrangements such as charters and vouchers, praised the Buffalo board for its willingness to see itself broadly, as the provider of many educational options for its students. A handful of districts, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have chartered their own schools.
Ms. Allen said Buffalo is taking an unusually proactive stance. “There are districts that have been encouraging to charters, but Buffalo is actually fostering them,” she said. “I don’t know of a district that’s been as ambitious as quickly.”
A Good Influence?
That ambition is not universally viewed as a good thing, however.
New York state’s 1998 charter school law caps the number of such schools at 100 statewide. Fifty are up and running, and more are under consideration, according to the New York Charter School Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in New York City. The 11 charter schools in the Buffalo area enroll 3,600 of the nearly 15,000 students in such schools statewide.
While their boosters praise the pressure for improvement that charters can exert on regular public schools, skeptics have expressed a range of concerns. Those issues include the host district’s loss of the state aid that follows each student who transfers to a charter school, and uncertainty about whether charters perform better academically than traditional schools do. Studies so far have shown mixed results.
"[District leaders in Buffalo] have a laudable missionary zeal, but zeal isn’t enough. You need demonstrated success,” said Arnold B. Gardner, a state board of regents member who favors a statewide moratorium on charter school development.
Mr. Gardner said charter schools can be most valuable as laboratories of innovation whose successes can be copied by regular public schools. But now, he said, they serve more to drain off students whose families are empowered enough to seek an alternative, and leave the rest behind in struggling, unchanged schools.
“I don’t know if Buffalo is ready for a massive network of charter schools,” he said. “The effect on existing public schools could be very dramatic.”
Dramatic change is exactly what is needed, said Jack Coyle, the president of the Buffalo school board. By becoming the chartering entity, the district can shape the charter landscape and shut down schools that are not up to snuff, he said. He knows a shift in district culture will be necessary, and admits it could be tough.
“Is it threatening? Oh, my heavens, yes,” Mr. Coyle said. “Most of us probably won’t get re-elected this spring. But if we can do better with what we have for our kids, then shame on us for not trying.”
By repositioning the central office to sell services such as transportation and food to the charter schools, the district might be able be recoup much of the $7,910 in per-pupil aid that follows children from traditional to charter schools, said David Lanz, the district’s chief planning officer. Superintendent Marion Canedo tapped him to lead the charter school expansion.
“Of course [the loss of per-pupil aid to charters] is a concern,” Mr. Lanz said. “But I think it’s controllable.”
Philip B. Rumore, the president of the 3,800-member Buffalo Federation of Teachers, scoffs at the idea that the district can offset the loss of per-pupil aid by becoming a service supplier. And he disputed the common argument that as children transfer to charters, the district saves money by having fewer students to educate.
“You lose a few kids from this grade, a few kids from that school—it’s not enough to affect your overhead,” he said. “You still need the same number of teachers, and you can’t turn off the electricity.”
About $24 million of the district’s $507 million fiscal 2004 budget is allocated for the charter schools within its boundaries, Mr. Coyle said.
Mr. Rumore views the board’s expansion of charter schools as an “abrogation” of its duty to educate the district’s children. He wants the district instead to focus on forming more partnerships with businesses or community groups to aid school performance.
An independent report requested by the school board as it mulled expanding charter schools said that the district was making “valiant attempts” to operate effectively, but was impeded by a “rule-bound system.” It suggested that charters, when administered carefully, can exert a powerful force for change.