Charter schools in New York are providing the "seeds of change" for traditional schools, and state officials should not cap their future growth but provide them with more funding, a recent report by a Washington think tank concludes.
Though opposed by some school districts and teachers unions across New York, charter schools have shown early achievement results and offer alternatives that should be embraced by the state's education community, according to the Progressive Policy Institute. The institute is tied to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a group whose members have included former President Bill Clinton.
The study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, examined the two dozen charter schools in New York City. It also took a cursory look at the state's other two dozen charter schools, including Buffalo's charters.
Charter schools should be expanded, not see their growth capped as some critics have called for, to give increased capacity for the state's most challenged students who are not getting the help they need in traditional schools, the report says.
In recent years, various reports have criticized charter schools for failing to improve student performance. In August, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released by the U.S. Department of Education showed that students at charter schools nationwide generally performed worse in reading than their peers in traditional public schools.
But the Washington think tank's report notes that the rate of improvement of fourth-grade reading scores in New York City has exceeded those in traditional schools, though it cited shortcomings in the limited number of years of data. It says charter schools are "showing promising, if not unequivocally stellar, achievement."
It also sought to dispel critics' chief complaint about charter schools: that they rob traditional schools of money. The report insists that charters "haven't drained school district budgets," as originally thought.
It says the "most severe" impact was in 2000-01, when Lackawanna's public schools saw a 5.3 percent transfer of funds to charter schools. It calls the issue of fund transfer "a real but manageable challenge."
But recently, the state Board of Regents killed two charter school applications in Albany, citing concerns about a drain of funding for local schools.
Buffalo's school system this year is making nearly $39 million in payments to charter schools.
"Talk is cheap, and you can postulate all you want, but the reality is that those of us who have seen millions go to charter schools and program cuts in our Buffalo schools know the reality," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. His union has called for a state moratorium on new charters.
Charter schools, according to the report, receive less per student than other public schools. It says that charters in New York City get $8,452 per student, compared with $9,057 for traditional schools, and that charters also do not get money to pay for facility costs, putting the true gap with their traditional counterparts at $2,200 per student per year.
There are about 11,000 students statewide in charter schools; 74 percent qualify for subsidized lunches, compared with 51 percent statewide, and 85 percent of charter school students are minorities, compared with 45 percent statewide.
The report notes that New York has a series of oversight layers that are "more comprehensive and more frequently applied" than at traditional schools. It praises the State University of New York, one of the oversight entities, for not being afraid to shut down failing charter schools.
By being able to operate without the usual constraints, charter schools have been able to make achievements in other ways. It says, for example, that they often have become "models" for labor agreements. It cites one New York charter school with a six-page agreement, instead of the typical 200 pages or so, and with features such as teacher salaries based on seniority, as well as "improvement in practice."
Still, the report says the charter school movement could stall in New York unless a series of changes are made. It says that the current cap of 100 charters should be removed and that state officials should create a "level financial playing field" for charter schools and develop better ways to analyze performance.
"If the state is serious about making chartered schools a strong element of the state public school system," the report says, "it must ensure charter school students receive their fair share of state and local public dollars."