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Raising cap penalizes state's small city districts

Gov. David A. Paterson signed a bill on May 28 raising the charter school cap to 460, thus solving a dilemma involving the state's application for the federal Race to the Top grant. If awarded, this grant would provide the state $700 million in funding for education reform.

Superficially, this would seem to be a good bill. How could anyone oppose charter schools and lessen the chance to receive $700 million in federal funding?

However, the New York State Association of Small City School Districts, an organization representing the 57 small cities with 250,000 students and 1.5 million residents, is doing just that.

"Our concern is not whether charters are an important step forward but rather the effect of the law on small-city students and taxpayers," said Binghamton School District Superintendent Peggy Wozniak, the association's president.

The vast majority of charter applications and charter approvals in New York State have been in city school districts, including small cities (174 of 177). Urban schools struggle each year to find adequate resources. The arrival of a new charter school often presents the district with difficult financial choices and the potential for large deficits.

Proponents of charter schools assert that education dollars, whether from state aid or local school taxes, should follow the child. However, when a student attends a charter school, the sending district is required to pay the charter tuition in the amount of its approved operating expense per pupil, which in the average district is about $12,000. The sending district, however, in the first few years, at least, experiences no decline in its overall costs of operation. Therefore, the tuition constitutes an increase in its budget that must be paid through increased school taxes or cuts in basic programs.

In high concentrations, charter schools can wreak havoc on public school programming and finances, as they have in Albany. In 2009, the Albany School District paid charter schools a net $15 million in tuition and since 1999 has paid them $126 million.

Public schools are under strict state constitutional, statutory and regulatory mandates to provide a quality education for their students. On top of this mandate, the charter school law mandates that districts provide financial support for charter school children. Because this mandate is only partially and temporarily funded by state aid, support for charter schools has been provided primarily by the local taxpayer. Districts have been required to make the difficult choice between cutting basic educational programming and increasing local property taxes.

Statewide, the new charter schools just authorized will cost public school districts and their taxpayers at least $500 million annually. Until the state funds charters, the association would be ignoring its duty to the students and taxpayers in small cities if it did not oppose raising the charter school cap.

Robert E. Biggerstaff is executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Small City School Districts.

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