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Charter schools raising the ante

The charter school movement in the United States, launched in 1992, today is made up of some 3,500 schools in 40 states. It has been controversial since the beginning, with major disputes on their effectiveness in improving the achievement of their students, their financing, which critics say weakens traditional public school systems, and criticism in some states of the profit-making companies that manage a great many of the charters.

A recently concluded study, sponsored by a pro-charter organization, has pointed up the disparity in funding between charter schools and the traditional ones. In New York State, the study said the average charter school receives $10,500 per student while the traditional school receives $13,300.

The numbers differ from state to state. For example, charter schools in California get an average of $4,800 per student in federal, state and local taxpayer dollars, while the traditional schools receive $7,000 for each student. In Cleveland the charter schools receive $7,200 per enrolled pupil, compared with $10,700 for each student in the city's public schools.

There are reasons for these differences. There's no set formula in the nation for reimbursement to charter schools for each student they accept. Proponents of the traditional public schools are quick to point out that the traditional schools frequently provide costly services for disabled and homeless children while the charters do not. In some instances, the public schools pay to transport students to charter schools, a cost the charters do not have.

A major cause for the disparity in the numbers is that the traditional schools can utilize state and local dollars to build and/or renovate schools, dollars that in most instances are not available for those purposes to the charters. The charters generally have to use operating funds for those purposes.

The most important result of this study is that it is likely to set off a clamor from charter proponents to end or at least minimize the financing inequities. This will lead to a furious battle, given the funding problems in most cities and school districts. School districts today are concerned about the drain on their resources as more and more students leave the public school system and enroll in charters. The funds that go to the charters come from the district's education budget.

I would strongly suggest that the school districts resist any and all efforts to increase the reimbursements to the charters. Public education continues, as it should, to be the principal educational opportunity for the vast majority of young people. Divert funds to the charters is an ever-increasing threat to the stability of the public school system.

I have always written of my support, on a limited basis, of the charter schools, but I've always expressed concern that the number of charters needs to be carefully limited and that they not be permitted to proliferate. Each application needs to be carefully scrutinized to be certain it is needed and will be staffed properly to accomplish its ends.

School district leaders must keep in mind that if they yield to expediency and increase the funding to the charters, it will not end there. Human nature is such that if you yield in one phase, it will only lead to further requests for more aid.

The government of Israel, for example, ultimately will regret yielding the Gaza strip. In the not-too-distant future, it will be pressured to get out of the West Bank and ultimately East Jerusalem.

The charter schools vs. the public schools scenario is no different. Yield to what I anticipate will be the demands of the charter school movement, and ultimately they will demand more and more. If granted, the public school system will be further weakened.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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