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The battle has been joined.

In the crucial arena of education, lines have been drawn and salvos fired. On one side are the forces of educational revolution, on the other the entrenched interests of an educational establishment buttressed by years of administration theory and decades of teacher contracts.

In the middle are the children of New York State.

For organizers of the state's first real wave of charter schools -- including two proposed Buffalo facilities that were awarded charters Tuesday -- the key to a better future for our children is increased school choice, and better flexibility to meet their academic and developmental needs. Shaking up the establishment is a small price to pay for that freedom, they argue.

And they're right. For even if charter schools die in the process -- and some will -- they will have shed light on the problems of an educational system that isn't working as well as it should be, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

They will have highlighted possibilities. They will have enhanced competition in the school systems, forcing established public schools to meet the challenge by improving. They will have shifted at least some of the emphasis and energy back to education, instead of the educational system.

"Today, there's not much flexibility in the system," says Kevin J. Helfer, the former Common Council member who is a strong advocate of publicly funded but privately run charter schools.

The charter concept "is not the cure-all, but it provides competition," he adds. "And if you're going to improve any system, you need competition."

Like any good battle, this one was joined with a surprise attack in the middle of the night. A favorite cause of Gov. George E. Pataki, charter school legislation hadn't drawn much debate or been given much of a chance -- until the governor, locked in session-ending budget debates with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno late in 1998, laid it on the table as one of his policy-setting conditions in return for a whopping 38 percent pay raise for state legislators.

Suddenly -- and with virtually no additional debate -- New York State had a new Charter School Law. And groups of parents statewide started scrambling to get their educational ideas ready for this September's wave of 100 new charters set to join the first five schools now open.

In this case at least, bad lawmaking led to a good law.

"I think New York has one of the strongest charter school laws in the country," argues Patricia U. Pitts, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's Charter School Initiative. "It has taken off in other states. It has grown by leaps and bounds."

There are charter schools in 38 states and the District of Columbia; there were 1,684 such schools nationwide in 1999, and President Clinton wants 3,000 up and running by the time he leaves office in a year.

To put charter schools in perspective: There are between 87,000 and 88,000 public schools in the country, run by 14,800 school boards. Public school enrollment is about 45 million students, a sixth of the nation's population. Charter schools enrolled about 350,000 students last year.

That's far less than the 2.5 million students in the Catholic school system or even the 700,000 to 2 million estimated home-schooled students, and it's still catching up to the 400,000 in non-sectarian private schools.

Still, public schools are clearly feeling the heat.

"I see the potential for dividing our communities and our children in ways that are unhealthy," says Alison C. Hyde of East Aurora, vice president of the New York State School Boards Association.

"The children say we need books and good things in the schools now. How can competition that is draining funds provoke the schools that remain into doing better with less, for the 90 percent of the students who remain?"

But that battle already has been lost. The law is on the books.

"It's very painful to the schools. It takes dollars right out of the public school system," adds State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills. "But you can't rail against this. I see no indication the legislation will change."

The issues in this battle are clearly defined. By siphoning off the per-pupil share of state school operating aid for each child who shifts to a charter from a district school, the new facilities weaken funding for existing public schools. Teachers and school facility expenses still must be paid, even if pupils and their shares of tax revenues are lost.

There also are fears the new state-chartered schools will further impoverish public schools by "cherry picking" the best students with the most concerned and involved parents, although the few studies done so far don't bear that out. Some charters, in fact, target at-risk children.

In Minnesota, where the nation's first charter school opened in 1992, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution researchers found that charters "serve a larger proportion of poor, disadvantaged and special-needs children." The U.S. Department of Education's third-year report on "The State of Charter Schools" indicates charters -- which are largely urban schools -- enroll a greater percentage of African-American students than public schools in general (23.6 percent to 5.2 percent) and students with limited English proficiency (11.2 percent to 3.4 percent).

Nationwide, polls reflect public dismay at the performance of what many see as a failing educational system, one now defined less by the needs of children than by a web of teacher and administrator contracts with rules for overtime, scheduling and assignments.

By giving parents more flexible alternatives and a chance to pick schools based on performance, charters should force public schools into innovation and improvement.

The whole charter concept hinges on finding new and creative ways to provide better education in schools that have more control over their budgets, staffs and teaching strategies.

Generally organized by parents, they also seek much greater parental involvement than public schools. Some mandate volunteer time from parents; others benefit simply from the fact that parents who seek out charter schools already are involved in their children's education.

Polled by the non-profit group Public Agenda, most Americans showed a firm belief that parents -- not schools -- will always be the key to a good education. A whopping 86 percent of respondents to extensive telephone and mail surveys agreed that "parents are the most important reason kids succeed or fail in school."

Aaron Dare, an Urban League leader, founded New York's first charter school with just that in mind. In the Albany neighborhood in which he grew up, he saw parents dropping off children at the same schools that had failed his generation -- schools, he told a New York City luncheon audience last September, that "stole promise, stole potential and set children on a course of compromise."

"I was determined, however, to roll up my sleeves and work with the parents to ensure our children had access -- not as a privilege, but as a right -- to a quality education," said the man who launched Albany's New Covenant Charter School. "This is what the entire charter school movement is about. This is the only agenda there is to advance."

The typical day in any public school follows a routine defined by district-level school policies and staff contracts. Charter schools try not to be typical, and their individualized school-day routines are defined by the vision of their founders. One proposed Buffalo school wants an emphasis on Spanish and the arts, while another wants to give inner-city children the year-round school schedule its organizers failed to wrest from the city school system.

It's perestroika in the classroom. Instead of a highly centralized, Soviet-style organization -- with a main office controlling both staffing and spending at all its far-flung educational plants -- the shift is toward private educational enterprise and less-regulated individual facilities free to do whatever it takes to turn out a competitive product: a well-educated child.

Private schools, of course, have been doing that for years. But they haven't been doing it with tax dollars. When a pupil leaves a public school to go to a charter, the per-child share of the home district's "approved operating expense" -- $5,823 in Buffalo -- goes along.

So far, though, the arguments against diverting state aid to charter schools seem overblown. If Buffalo's two first-round Buffalo charters plan to open this fall with their planned start-up enrollment of 300 pupils, the impact will be about $1.75 million -- for a city system that fumbled nearly $9 million in state special education aid through bureaucratic errors last year, and is seeking an overall budget of $511 million this year. And with no suburban charters in this round, other local districts will see no loss at all.

"Given the thousands of public schools in the State of New York, 100 start-up charter schools will have virtually no impact," notes Buffalo attorney Steven H. Polowitz, a supporter of the new law.

To stave off a stampede, state law forbids "conversions" of existing private schools into new charter schools. The charter concept also is less controversial than vouchers, which allow parents to spend a share of taxpayer funding on religious schools. But charters are not, as one respondent to the Public Agenda polls guessed, "free private schools."

"These are public schools, entirely," said Robert M. Bennett, a member of the State Board of Regents. They will undergo an annual performance review and an annual financial audit, to make sure they meet their own goals as well as "meet or exceed" Regents education standards.

"It's not that (parents) want private rather than public," argues State University at New Paltz dean Gerald Benjamin; "it's that they want better education."

"There are things that are making charter schools very attractive to parents," adds state School Boards Association spokesman David Ernst. "School boards have to pay attention to that."

Charter schools are, in fact, privately run public schools. With some exceptions, they must follow the "free and open to everyone" mandate that is a cornerstone of public education. They have a lot in common with the Buffalo system's magnet schools, but they have the freedom to seek supplemental private funding and to follow philosophies ranging from Montessori and individually tailored academics to back-to-basics, discipline and uniforms.

Unless they have more than 250 students, they also don't have to comply with their host district's teacher contracts -- giving them the right to adjust hours, alter the school year and involve parents more fully in the teaching process.

Charter schools are still very much an experiment.

Some of them will fail.

Self-organized charter school boards also lack some of the accountability of democratically elected public school boards, and the lack of public oversight can lead to problems that affect children's lives.

"It's a concern of a lot of us, I think, that a lot of the charters are dubious," said Arnold Gardner, another State Board of Regents member from Buffalo. "They require rigorous examination."

By January of 1999, 34 of the first 1,100 charter schools had closed -- a failure rate of 2.7 percent. The Center for Education Reform identified three key factors: Funding (partly due to too few students), mismanagement (including inflated enrollment figures triggering too-great diversions of public funds) and management disputes.

Beyond the hope and the hype, University of California at Los Angeles professor and researcher Amy Stuart Wells argued this fall, charter schools aren't really living up to their claims.

In Massachusetts, the nation's largest charter school -- the 1,142-pupil Boston Renaissance Charter School, recently profiled in this newspaper -- struggles with problems related to size and the purchase of a large downtown building, although the smaller and hybrid charter-district Mission Hill School nearby delights parents with student success stories.

And in Albany, the trustees at Dare's New Covenant School recently gave the national for-profit firm that actually runs the school two months to clear up a long list of parental complaints about overcrowding, understaffing and inaccessibility.

Still, parent support for most charter schools -- including New Covenant -- remains strong. Most charter schools are turning educational visions into parent-supported realities, turning around problem kids and scoring well in standardized testing. And six of seven national and state studies -- including Arizona, Michigan, California and Massachusetts -- show that the vast majority of charter schools are not only staying open, they're having the hoped-for "positive ripple effect" in triggering change and innovation in public school districts.

"A bad school should close," former Council Member Kevin Helfer says. "Kids can be hurt, but they're also hurt by bad public schools that stay open. If you're not going to challenge, you're not going to make changes."

Policy-makers such as Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, don't see the diversion of public school resources as that unfair.

"I don't buy that," he says. "If the status quo isn't working, we ought to try something different. This is an experiment."

The experiment is needed. Widespread dissatisfaction with public-school performance -- the kind of dissatisfaction that triggered the Regents' current push for tougher academic standards -- is based on a perception, at least, that the education system is broken and isn't doing enough to fix itself.

Studies routinely document shortfalls in student performance in today's public schools. Most recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- commonly termed the nation's report card -- found New York students ranking slightly below the national average in writing skills. And that average was nothing to write home about; only about one-quarter of American elementary and secondary students are writing at "proficient" levels. Math and science skills will be tested this year.

People have noticed.

"I think people are starting to see. They may not understand vouchers or charters, but they know reform," Helfer says. "They want choice, and they want improvement."

In efforts to meet that demand, two national trends have emerged in education over the past 15 years. One is the push to higher standards, described by the Education Commission of the States as an effort to improve performance and strengthen accountability. The other is a push to decentralize decision-making, shifting greater authority and responsibility for results to the school level.

In New York, tough new Regents standards fit one of those trends. Charter school legislation meets the other, in a way that heads off the even more controversial voucher system being tried in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Teacher unions tend to see vouchers as even more of a threat than charter schools, because they divert tax-based funding completely away from public education. And while small New York charters will be free of such negotiated teacher benefits as scheduling restrictions, overtime and seniority preference for assignments, large charter schools will have to match local district contracts.

"Unions are not an impediment," says Buffalo Teachers Federation president Philip Rumore. "We work with the districts."

At a recent Chautauqua Institution conference on regionalism in education, Rumore ticked off a list of good-school attributes: Smaller class size, parent involvement, adequately trained teachers, adequate supplies, good administration and early inclusion of art, music and physical education.

All that can be done with proper public school funding, he added.

"I think we can compete, and if we can't, there's something wrong with us," he said.

To Rumore, charter schools are acceptable "as long as there's a level playing field, they meet the same requirements and accept the same students without taking money from us." But, he added, "we see money coming out of our system that we can't afford to lose."

Deborah Springpeace, a native Western New Yorker who taught at South Park High School for five years, is Rumore's worst nightmare. She's a convert from both private and public schools -- including stints teaching a small group of bright kids including Caroline Kennedy, and a job writing Buffalo's African-American studies curriculum -- to charter schools.

She is now a vice president for Edison Schools -- which, along with Beacon and Advantage, isamong the major "for-hire" education firms providing teachers, administrators and curriculums to some of the nation's charter schools. She works under intense media and public scrutiny as principal of the 665-pupil Seven Hills Charter School in inner-city Worcester, Mass.

Fearing profit-driven decision making, teachers' unions will lobby Albany to boot such firms out of New York State. But Springpeace says teachers should view charters, and firms like hers, as avenues toward across-the-board improvements in public education.

"I'm a lifer in public schools," she says. "I don't want to see charter schools negatively impact the public school system."

In the final analysis, charter schools do threaten public schools, and that's the whole point. To meet that threat, public schools themselves must improve.

That's imperative. American public education is a good system that could be better. Complacency isn't an option -- and stress for adults is OK, if it means better schooling and better lives for children.

In a limited way -- with only 50 charters available from the Regents, and another 50 from the state university system's trustees -- charters promise at least the chance to force that change for the better.

Charter schools offer no magic bullets -- but they deserve a chance to show what can happen when schools are targeted solely on the needs of the children, and not on the needs of the educational establishment.

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