When the charter school movement began in New York State nearly 20 years ago, the Buffalo region was quick out of the gate, opening a dozen charters within the first several years.
And while their enrollments continued to grow, the number of charters in the region remained relatively consistent – until recently. Two new charters opened this year, two more are scheduled to open next year and at least three others are in the pipeline.
That would bring the region’s total to 24. Only New York City has more charters in the state.
But Buffalo has a greater percentage of students attending charters. One in five children who attend a public school in Buffalo go to a charter.
That’s a picture of the charter school landscape based on state and district data, which helps explain the simmering tension between charters and traditional public schools, particularly in Buffalo, where the rivalry publicly resurfaced.
The Buffalo Board of Education last month asked the state for a three-year moratorium on charters in the city, as the school district continues to lose both kids and funding to the charters.
“Demand continues to be there,” said Efrain Martinez, superintendent of Charter Schools for Applied Technologies and one of the area’s senior charter school leaders.
“Even though there are some signs of progress in the district here and there, for some reason the demand continues to be high,” Martinez said,
Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash said he has been supportive of charters since their inception as "incubators of innovation." But he said the charter movement has morphed over the years and it is raising larger questions, not just about their funding model, but issues of equity and teacher quality.
"There are some challenges but they can be worked out together. I just don't like this 'we versus them' sort of approach," Cash said.
"We need more robust conversation, for maybe a good year or two, to see how far we can all get before you keep opening new schools in work that is very difficult," Cash said. "Otherwise, what you're going to do is create more and more inequity."
Contrary to popular belief, charters are public schools. They are run independently by their founders – often educators or parents or charter management companies – offering families a choice from the “traditional” public schools.
Charters, however, can operate outside the conventional rules and with greater flexibility on such details as personnel or the length of the school day and year. On Wednesday, the State University of New York, one of the entities that authorizes charters, voted to let certain charters under its auspices certify their own teachers – a big change from making all teachers go through the more rigorous state certification process.
Curriculums also can vary greatly, often centering on specific themes – from the naval uniforms and military discipline at Western New York Maritime Charter School to the focus on “expeditionary learning” at Tapestry Charter School.
At REACH Academy Charter School, one of two new charters to open this year, the emphasis is on literacy and vocabulary. The 160 kindergarten and first-graders spend the school year rotating among eight themed classrooms: a grocery store, a farm, a fire station, a construction site.
“Parents want a quality, safe school that welcomes them in,” said Linda Marszalek, head of school at REACH. “It’s been an easy sell once they’ve seen our classrooms.”
Since the state first began authorizing them in 1998, charters have continued to blossom, specifically in urban areas plagued by troubled, under-performing schools.
But controversy followed.
The students’ home district pays per pupil for their attendance at the tuition-free and publicly funded charters – striking at the heart of the debate.
“Money,” said Sandra Vergari, a political scientist at the University at Albany, summing up the controversy.
“Fundamentally, each child that leaves a school district takes with him the per pupil spending. That’s money exiting the traditional public schools heading over to the charter school,” said Vergari, an associate professor in the School of Education. “Some people say you’re setting up a parallel school system and ask, ‘Is that a sufficient use of public taxpayer dollars?’”
In Buffalo, an estimated 9,000 kids are attending a charter school this year at a cost to the school district of $124 million – and growing.
“We estimate, right now, there are about 3,000 families on a waiting list,” said Jason Zwara, policy manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the advocacy organization for charters in Buffalo.
How many more charters are in Buffalo’s future?
“It’s hard to say,” Zwara said. “We always say, ‘As long as there’s parent demand, there’s room for growth.’ ”
Here’s a closer look at the charter landscape, based on state and national data:
Charter schools educated 3 million students across the United States during the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools based in Washington, D.C.
That’s nearly triple the enrollment from 10 years prior.
California has the most charter schools. Arizona has the largest proportion of charter students.
“Charter school laws are on the books in 44 states plus the District of Columbia,” said Vanessa Descalzi, a spokeswoman for the alliance. “In some states, like Alabama and Kentucky, the laws are so new that their first public charter schools have not yet opened. In other states, like Nebraska, there are no charter schools because they do not have a charter school law.”
Still, the nearly 6,800 charters represented just a small portion of U.S. schools — 7 percent.
"It tends to be more of an urban movement," said Vergari, the Albany associate professor, "concentrated in urban areas where public schools have been struggling."
Cap on charters
New York State had 256 charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. New York City is home to 80 percent of them, led by Kings County – Brooklyn – where the number of charters not only is the largest, but where they have grown the fastest.
“It’s not a monolithic movement,” Vergari said.
“You find both liberals and conservatives courting and opposing charter schools,” she said. “Proponents and opponents may want to simplify it, but it’s complex. Many parents aren’t concerned with ideology, or Republican and Democrat. They’re just seeking a better school for their child than the one they’re currently in.”
While growing in numbers, charters still educate a small portion of New York State's public school kids – 4 percent. New York State falls in the middle of the pack in the percentage of students attending a charter school.
There is room to grow, however.
New York has capped the number of charters at 460. As of July, there were still 45 charters to be issued for New York City and 102 for the rest of the state.
The Buffalo region has the most charter schools in the state outside New York City – one in Niagara County and 18 in Erie County, which includes the two that opened this year.
Monroe County had 13 charters; Albany County, 7; and Onondaga County, 2, state data from the 2015-16 school year shows.
The area's first charter school opened in Buffalo in 2000, and after 18 years, the movement has entered somewhat of a “maturation” stage, Zwara said, as charters have become more established and financially secure.
"We have a lot of green space, we have a lot of after-school clubs," said David Ehrle, principal at South Buffalo Charter, one of Buffalo's early charters. "Parents like the idea we're offering a longer school day, a longer school year."
Up until now, the number of charters in the region had been relatively flat for more than a decade, in part because the state closed four charters, noted Martinez of CSAT, which boasts more than 2,000 students.
A lack of aid for buildings and adequate space in the Buffalo market also hasn't helped new charters trying to get off the ground, Zwara said.
Timing has played a role in the recent growth. Three to five charter applicants start the process each year, Zwara said, but it takes some longer than others to complete it. The growth spurt occurring in Buffalo now is more a matter of applications aligning at the same time, he said.
The number of local charters may have remained relatively stable for more than a decade, but their enrollments have grown – up 89 percent since 2005 to more than 9,700 students.
Most of those were in the City of Buffalo, home to 14 of the 17 area charters.
"We're not a cookie-cutter charter network," said Eric Klapper, executive director at Tapestry, which broke ground in August for a new elementary building. "Our school was started by five founders who were neighbors, who had kids in the public system, and wanted something different – you can't get more organic than that."
Enrollment in the Buffalo Public Schools dropped by 4,800 students since 2004, while enrollment in charters in the city climbed by nearly 2,700.
As a result, as many as 20 percent of the public school kids in Buffalo attended a charter in 2015-16. That's an even larger share than New York City, but not as high as some other urban districts, like Detroit and Flint, Mich., where the proportion of charter students was more than 50 percent, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“I think you are seeing enrollment growing faster than the number of schools, because you’re seeing more schools expanding grade levels,” Zwara said, “They’re watching their fifth-graders leave and not have good options, so they are expanding to 8th grade — or all the way to grade 12.”