When charter schools first opened here in 2000, the state warned that any of them failing to meet tough standards for student achievement would be closed.
That was not an empty threat.
Seven charter schools have been shut down by the state, including one in Buffalo. Several more, including two in Buffalo, have been given short-term renewals, with warnings that they face closure if results don't improve quickly.
Now, Enterprise Charter School's recent decision to close its Buffalo high school component -- made at the urging of the state Board of Regents -- has focused renewed attention on the high standards charter schools must meet in order to continue operating.
While teachers unions and some educators continue to oppose certain aspects of the charter school law in New York, there is broad agreement on this key issue: The consequences for failure are much greater at charter schools than they are at traditional public schools.
"It's a higher accountability system," said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York Charter Schools Association. "Charter schools face closure -- they face real consequences -- if they don't outperform district schools."
Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, agrees. He says charter schools with subpar student test scores are forced to close, while traditional schools that are failing continue to operate and even receive additional money to help correct their deficiencies.
"The consequences are much more severe -- absolutely," Bennett said. "If it's a charter school, they close. If it's not a charter school, then what? We don't have good answers for that yet."
Tough accountability standards were part of the equation from the start, said Bennett, a strong supporter of charter schools. Serious consequences for low-performing charter schools, he said, is a promise kept.
"The message is: The folks running these schools didn't get the job done," Bennett said. "Period. They can't operate them any more."
There are 97 charter schools in New York State, and all -- like traditional public schools -- are publicly funded. Sixteen of the state's charter schools are in the Buffalo Niagara region, including 13 in Buffalo.
Charter school oversight is especially critical here, because 6,538 public school students in Buffalo -- or 16 percent of the city's total public school enrollment -- attend charters. That percentage is the highest in the state and the 14th highest of any city in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
While some Buffalo-area charter schools have produced high student test scores and accolades from the state, others have been under the gun. For example:
* Stepping Stone Charter School was closed by the State University of New York last year for poor academic performance, forcing 600 pupils to find new schools.
* Sankofa Charter School, located in Central Park Plaza, was cited by SUNY's Charter Schools Institute this year for low test scores and a host of other problems. Unless the school shows dramatic improvement, the institute said, it will be closed at the end of this school year or, at best, be given a short-term renewal rather than a second five-year license.
* The King Center Charter School, 938 Genesee St., was given a second short-term renewal earlier this year and was told to raise test scores in English or be closed after this school year.
* Enterprise will close its high school next year at the urging of the state but is seeking a second five-year license from the Buffalo Board of Education and the Board of Regents to continue instruction in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Board of Education initially balked at that request, saying it needed more time to review Enterprise's test scores. The issue will be discussed at a special Board of Education meeting Wednesday.
At the same time, the Charter School for Applied Technologies and the South Buffalo, Tapestry and Global Concepts charter schools registered strong test scores and received full five-year renewals.
Overall, Buffalo Niagara's charter schools register substantially higher test scores than traditional Buffalo schools.
New York State United Teachers, the state's teachers union and a strong critic of many charter schools practices, says traditional schools get a slight edge when comparisons are made between charter schools with comparable levels of student poverty.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act contains provisions for traditional schools to be closed or dramatically revamped after years of low pupil performance.
But educators said that system is far more flexible than the state's charter school relicensing law. As a result, they say, traditional city schools stay open even with test scores comparable or even lower than charter schools that are ordered to close.
In Buffalo, Seneca High School is being phased out after registering a graduation rate below 10 percent. In addition, poor academic performance was one of the factors considered in recent years when the Board of Education decided which schools to close due to declining district enrollment.
But poor performance itself seldom leads to closings at traditional public schools.
"You have to have courage to do that," said Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams. "The political culture and the union culture will not allow you to do that."
In contrast, the State University of New York, one of the state's charter school authorizers, expects charter schools to reach pupil proficiency rates approaching 75 percent in English, math, science and social studies for students who have been at the schools at least two years.
SUNY also expects charter schools it licenses to outperform traditional schools in their home districts and comparable schools across the state, said Cynthia Proctor, director of public affairs for the Charter Schools Institute, SUNY's monitoring arm.
"If we're not going to serve the students in the way they deserve, then the school shouldn't be there," she said.
>Beyond test scores
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said charter schools have unfair advantages. He claims they send pupils with persistent discipline problems back to traditional city schools, discourage enrollment of students with severe disabilities and often enroll children from families that are more involved in their education.
"Everybody's going to find that charter schools aren't doing what they said they were going to do," he said.
Charter school administrators deny those claims, saying they frequently enroll students who struggled at traditional schools and arrive several years below grade level. In addition, they say they are held to higher standards even though they receive proportionately less funding.
Some charter school administrators say that those and other factors aren't given enough weight and that relicensing decisions are made almost entirely on the basis of test scores.
Murphy, of the Charter Schools Association, said that should come as no surprise.
"This is the way the law was designed," he said. "People know that going in. We accept those rules."
>Where local charter schools stand
Local charter schools that received full five-year license renewals:
* Charter School for Applied Technologies
* South Buffalo Charter School
* Tapestry Charter School
* Global Concepts Charter School
Local charter schools that have struggled with recertification:
* Stepping Stone Charter School (closed by the state last year)
* Enterprise Charter School (closing high school component next school year)
* Sankofa Charter School
* King Center Charter School