Charter schools offer the quickest way to a better education for Buffalo students - The Buffalo News
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Charter schools offer the quickest way to a better education for Buffalo students

Go big.

That’s what the Buffalo School Board needs to do as it contemplates opening new charter schools as a strategy to improve the education of the city’s underserved students. Not because charters are a guaranteed answer – plainly, they’re not – or because they’re the only answer, but because they are what the district can do most quickly to ensure that more Buffalo students get the education that can propel rather than scuttle their prospects.

Because education in Buffalo is such a critical issue, The News has been examining schools in and out of Buffalo that do well, and has included several charter schools in that ongoing series of stories. It’s an important subject, as the School Board’s new majority is looking at charters as a strategy for changing the district’s outlook.

There’s good reason for the board’s interest.

Consider Tapestry Charter School. which was featured in an in-depth article in last Sunday’s Buffalo News. Its 2013 enrollment was 327 students and it has a four-year graduation rate of an amazing 93 percent. In comparison, the rate for the district’s high schools is just 56 percent. The school is clearly doing something right.

Or consider the Charter School for Applied Technologies. With a 2013 enrollment of 470 students, it’s four-year graduation rate is 99 percent. Is there anything for the grown-ups to learn there? Only someone with an agenda other than serving the needs of students could think of denying it.

The difference is not mainly in demographics, although that may once have been a bigger issue. At CHSAT, for example, 86 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to 65 percent of the district’s students. Minority populations vary: There is a greater population of Hispanic students at CHSAT than in the district, but a smaller share of African-American students. There are also fewer students with disabilities (11 percent vs. 17 percent) and fewer English language learners (1 percent vs. 12 percent).

Populations at Tapestry are similarly mixed. There, 75 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 5 percent of students are English language learners. It serves a greater concentration of African-American students than the district and a lesser share of Hispanic students.

One critical advantage all these students may have over at least some of their peers in district schools is this: Their families are engaged in their children’s education. They knew that charter schools could serve their children better and, importantly, they knew the channels of the system well enough to get their children into those schools.

How many students who could benefit from such an experience are blocked simply for lack of space in charter schools? Hundreds? Thousands? By what measure is it morally or educationally correct to deny them that opportunity while consigning them to institutions that aren’t working and may lead thousands of students on a path toward woefully lesser lives?

Charter schools aren’t guaranteed to work any more than district schools are, but their prospects for success are greater, in part because they are freed from two destructive bureaucracies: those of the school district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Charters have more autonomy and, therefore, can be far more nimble than a school operating under the regulations of a sprawling and byzantine school district and an obstructionist teachers union.

Charters can adjust their schedules to meet the needs of students, teachers and parents. The teachers are hired by the schools and embrace each school’s mission and model of teaching, which may be non-traditional.

And yes, charter schools can fail, but if that happens they can be abolished. It is intensely difficult to close a district school, but the ax is sharpened and waiting for charters that don’t measure up. It’s a great incentive to perform.

The funding formula for charters remains an ongoing problem. Because funding follows a district student who enrolls at a charter, district schools can lose large amounts of money without seeing any decrease in their operating costs. That disadvantages the students left in those schools, but in the end, that is a call to fix the funding formula, not to deny students the only change that could be implemented reasonably quickly as a plausible way improve their educations.

The district is moving to open more charters, and has been invited by State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to do so. That plan would create four new charter schools to replace four failing schools that are facing closure. That’s a start.

School Board members should set an ambitious goal to open not just hundreds, but thousands of slots by allowing new charter schools to open, by converting existing district schools or both. If enough students transferred to new charters, the district could save money by closing or converting whole buildings.

None of this creates an excuse to abandon or fail to improve the traditional public schools. That work is critical and it remains necessary. But the futures of enough young people have been sacrificed to the challenges of the district and its teachers union.

It’s time to move swiftly and aggressively in a new direction.

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