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Charter schools are a fiscal bargain, not a burden

The Buffalo Public School District has recently ratcheted up its decade-long on-again, off-again attack campaign against charter schools. During recent public forums, School Superintendent James A. Williams and Chief Financial Officer Gary Crosby have blamed charter school expenses as the primary culprit for the district's budget woes.

Central to the district's latest aggression is the claim that the estimated $70 million spent on charters is a fiscal drain on the district. This is nonsense.

The claims come by manipulating data in order to paint charters as responsible for the district's fiscal problems, even though charter schools have been improving the academic performance of Buffalo students for nearly a decade at one-third to 40 percent less cost than what the Buffalo Public Schools spend.

This year, the district is spending at least $18,000 per student, and even more if you remove the charter school enrollment and corresponding expenses from the calculation. By contrast, charter schools receive $10,429 per student calculated from a statutory formula based on district operating expenses. Charters also receive some funding for special education students, plus in-kind support for transportation and textbooks. On the high end, this support raises per-pupil charter funding to an estimated $11,000 per student -- at least $7,000 less than what the district spends.

This inequity results in a fiscal bargain for Buffalo: While charter school enrollment comprises 15 percent of the district's public school students, less than 10 percent of the district's budget is for charter expenses. With more than 6,000 Buffalo students in charter schools, the district should be right-sizing to reflect this voluntary exodus.

By one measure, Buffalo residents pay nothing for charter schools in terms of any local funding share. Since charter students remain in the district's enrollment count for generating state school aid, the result is at least $70 million in state aid for Buffalo this year, which equates to the district's charter expenses. Still, a key question must be asked: Just how bad is the Buffalo schools' budget problem?

Last fall, The News reported the district had accumulated a $119.3 million "record surplus -- that will help cushion the blow from reductions in state aid that are expected to affect the next school year."

At the Oct. 20 Board of Education meeting, Crosby boasted: "We should count our blessings that we've managed to accumulate what we have. We're going to have a plan [for reduced state aid] in place, ready to go. We're not going to wait until the ax falls."

Three months later, the district "plan" appears to be a disturbing full-blown, public misinformation campaign against charter schools. But it's more than that. The choices made by more than 6,000 families to enroll their children in this public school option -- which represent an oasis for students -- are under assault by leaders whose job is to serve all children.

A product of the business community, now a bureaucrat, Crosby has continually cast numbers in his attempt to scapegoat charter schools as a financial burden to the district when the opposite is true. One way is to exclude categories from the district's $750 million budget to artificially lower the district's per-pupil spending so it compares more favorably against charter schools.

Another gimmick reads like a joke by claiming that if all charter students returned to district schools -- dream on -- the Buffalo Public Schools would save millions since the added cost would offset charter expenditures. The Buffalo Teachers Federation has been hawking this same absurd scenario, so City Hall and the BTF must be comparing notes. In fact, this hypothetical omits existing district expenses on those same "returning" students while it also reveals its unwillingness to achieve more marginal and fixed savings to reflect the absence of so many charter students.

We expect the BTF to attack charters; it comes natural. But it's unfortunate to see Williams -- after so much early promise and evenhandedness toward charters -- together with Crosby and the BTF concoct a hodgepodge of sound bites painting charters as the villain. Scheming this way also serves to divide Buffalo by pitting one group of at-risk students against another.

Exploiting the fiscal downturn to discredit charters is no substitute for innovative leadership and responsible management of the district that Williams and Crosby were brought in to perform.

Peter Murphy is policy director of the New York Charter Schools Association, the statewide advocacy group for charter schools, based in Albany.

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