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Charters don't hurt city schools Money going to alternatives is scapegoat for system's failures

The argument that charter schools are detrimental to the Buffalo Public Schools because they cost the system $32.8 million a year is irrelevant. The district gets $620 million -- 80 percent of it from the state -- to spend on and educate 37,800 students, about $16,000 each. With an estimated 5,000 students in charter schools and the Buffalo system paying those schools $51.5 million on behalf of those students, that's about $10,000 for each.

In other words, less than two thirds of per-pupil aid leaves with students when they choose charter schools. The rest stays with the Buffalo Public Schools, an enormous amount of money going to the system for students no longer enrolled in it.

Superintendent James A. Williams has stated repeatedly that the district has plenty of money to improve students' education and proficiency levels. He says the money isn't getting to the classroom in sufficient amounts to turn around the district's dismal performance. Obviously, there are economies to be rung out of this foundering system, which the parents of 5,000 charter school students are saying doesn't meet their children's needs. Spend those savings and the remaining charter-student money in the classrooms and continue focusing on meaningful initiatives such as leadership in the schools, lengthening the school day and year, boosting prekindergarten programs and applying technology in classrooms. These four goals are present in most charter schools and are reasons they draw parents and students away from lesser public schools.

District Chief Financial Officer Gary Crosby points out that being pro-charter and anti-funding formula are not mutually exclusive positions. Critics who focus on the money lost to the district each year, expected to rise to $62.3 million next year, and to $78.9 million in 2007-08, take issue not with charter performance but with the state funding formula. Fair enough.

The question, he says, is how to improve student achievement when forced to make deep cuts in personnel every year to balance the budget, even with frozen wages. The need, he adds, is to take care of the funding issue so district schools and charters can compete for the benefit of student achievement.

But the financial argument about money walking out of the door fails when examining how much money remains without the cost of 5,000 students. As Regent Robert M. Bennett pointed out last week, the district wasn't succeeding before charter schools started siphoning students. Charter schools offer an alternative to bad public schools and fuel healthy competition to provide top-quality education.

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