The Buffalo, N.Y., school district has sparked controversy from many quarters in its unusually aggressive bid to operate a group of its own charter schools. Now its first official step toward building that network of schools has been very publicly rebuffed by the state department of education.
In letters to Buffalo’s interim superintendent, a top state education official said he would recommend that the state board of regents reject the three charter school applications. They represent the first concrete piece of Buffalo’s highly publicized plan to authorize multiple charter schools.
The letters outlined seven or more reasons why each application was flawed, ranging from an absence of evidence that fingerprint checks of the applicants had been performed to problems with the schools’ proposed admissions criteria or financial backing.
If the Buffalo school board chooses not to abandon the applications, the education department will recommend that the board of regents reject them at its March 14 meeting, James R. Butterworth, an assistant state commissioner whose oversight area includes the department’s division of public school choice, said in his Feb. 3 letters to Yvonne Hargrave.
Andrew J. Maddigan, a spokesman for the Buffalo schools, said last week that the district was “surprised, to say the least” when it received the letters, since it had been in contact with the education department during the evaluation process. The district will do its best to address state officials’ concerns about the applications, he said.
Buffalo officials weren’t the only ones surprised. Robert M. Bennett, the chancellor of the board of regents, told Education Week that the letter was “out of bounds” in recommending rejection of the applications with no option for revision. By telephone, he asked Deputy Commissioner James Kadamus for clarification. On Feb. 11, Mr. Butterworth wrote a second letter to Ms. Hargrave to “clarify a misunderstanding” caused by the Feb. 3 letters.
The Feb. 11 letter said that if the regents find the applications unacceptable, they will be returned to the district, which can then choose to modify and resubmit them. The district may also modify the applications before the regents review them, the letter said.
Delay in Washington
The state’s reaction to Buffalo’s plan was the latest twist in a debate that’s been hot from the start. Believing that actively molding the charter school landscape was smarter than watching while the largely independent public schools took shape, a strong majority on a previous Buffalo school board began to assertively court charter schools of its own, rather than those authorized by the state. (“Buffalo Board Votes to Explore Network of Charter Schools,” April 16, 2003.)
The local teachers’ union strongly opposes the idea, noting that the district loses money because state funding follows the nearly 4,700 Buffalo students to 14 charter schools operating in and around the district. Only two were authorized by the 38,000-student district; the rest were authorized by the state.
A school board election last spring produced a panel whose views are more mixed on charter schools. The current board approved a one-year moratorium on charter school applications that expires Dec. 31. The applications for the three schools that prompted the Feb. 3 letters were exempted from that moratorium.
Buffalo is not alone among districts in searching for a comfortable way to manage the charter school issue. Last week, the District of Columbia board of education voted to delay setting up application timetables for charter schools that seek to open in the fall of 2006.
Board member Tommy Wells said the Washington panel wants to better coordinate charter school approvals with the needs of the district as perceived by the new superintendent, Clifford B. Janey. He is drafting a “master plan” for the education system in the nation’s capital.
About 15,000 students attend 45 charter schools in the 62,000-student District of Columbia system.
Charter school advocates immediately attacked the move as a breach of the district’s charter school law, which ensures that the district’s two chartering entities—the board of education and the D.C. Public Charter School Board—operate independently of the traditional public school bureaucracy.
In Buffalo, the state’s move was seen by some as a sign of the touchy climate around charter schools. Jack Coyle, a Buffalo board member who led the move toward a charter network, wondered if New York state could be “tightening up” the way it evaluates applications as it moves closer to its cap of 100 charter schools. Sixty-one are now operating around the state, with another nine expected to open in the fall.
Other board members saw the state’s move as a signal that the Buffalo school board might want to reconsider its role in the charter school world.
Said board member Ralph Hernandez: “It’s obvious from my perspective that we don’t have the necessary experience to evaluate the quality or the probability of success of these charter schools.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, this is an embarrassment.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as State Faults 3 Charter Proposals From Buffalo