Charter Schools in Buffalo?
By Philip Nyhuis

Picture your child in a public school run by local activists that’s free of most state laws and regulations, a school established to encourage new and innovative teaching methods without the fetters of traditional bureaucratic structure. Education can be focused on a particular subject area, such as the arts, a foreign language, or a prestigious international baccalaureate curriculum. This school can set its own policies concerning everything from student uniforms to length of the school day and year. Whether you regard this kind of school as the answer to current educational problems or an illusionary quick fix, it’s now legal in the state of New York.

Charter schools, which have been picking up plenty of steam since the first one opened in Minnesota in 1992, have had the salutary effect of creating more debate and focusing more attention on the relative merits and failings of schools in general.

Among the most vocal proponents of charter schools, which are supported by public funds and cannot charge student tuition, are, not surprisingly, the concerned citizens and parents of students in the lowest-ranking districts, particularly the Buffalo district. A recent poll taken by Phi Delta Kappa, the professional education association, reported support for charters at about 49% in the general population and 62% among African-Americans. In the city’s Kensington-Baily area, organizers have been meeting for nearly a year to discuss the opening of the Community Charter School. With the passage of the New York charter school law, the group is planning to create a school that will allow students to remain with one teacher through four grades, require parents to devote four to six hours a month to the school, expand classroom periods, and empower its community council to make key operational decisions. Another recently formed group wants to establish a charter school in Buffalo’s Lovejoy district and believes the school could revitalize the area by attracting young, middle-class families to the neighborhood.

There are currently about 1,100 charter schools already in operation in 33 other states. These independent public schools are most popular in Arizona and Michigan, the states with the most permissive charter laws in the nation. The two states are also home to an impressive number of political conservatives, the other group—in addition to minorities in low-achieving school districts—that strongly supports charters. The rallying euphemism for charters among conservatives is “school choice.” However, the free enterprise argument that charter schools will create greater competition among schools for students and thus elevate the general level of educational achievement is one that appeals to politicians everywhere.

Another group eyeing charter schools carefully is the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Dissatisfaction with public education has brought increased enrollment to Catholic schools in the inner city and charters will no doubt bring competition for those students. The diocese currently has 23,685 children enrolled in 96 parish or regional elementary schools and 6,074 pupils in 17 high schools. The average Catholic high school tuition in the Buffalo diocese is $4,194. Elementary school tuition averages $1,140 for the first child with reduced rates for additional children.

Students at New York charter schools will be required to meet all of the higher academic standards being phased in to public schools and will have to pass the Regents exams to earn a diploma. The schools will be subject to civil rights, health, safety, and disability mandates. Existing public schools can also become charter schools and gain more freedom to create new educational programs as long as they meet the state’s academic criteria. Critics contend charters will weaken already struggling public schools and drain them of both good students and critical funds.

An in-depth report on Arizona and Michigan charter schools published in U.S. News a few months ago concluded that charter schools pursuing innovation and educational excellence are in the minority in those states and that most are beset with problems as bad or worse than those plaguing traditional public schools. However, for those confident that New York’s charters can overcome the problems of other states and provide a visionary alternative to public schools, more information is available at the New York State Charter Schools Resource Center website: nycharterschools.org. The site provides access to New York’s new charter school law, offers technical assistance in setting up a charter school, and includes a model charter school application.


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