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Charter school parents defend suit against state

A group of Buffalo parents whose children attend charter schools were in court Thursday to oppose the state’s bid to dismiss their lawsuit challenging the constitutionality and fairness of the state’s funding formula for charter schools.

Four Buffalo families and one from Rochester say the formula does not provide adequate funding to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide students with a sound, basic education.

The lawsuit, filed last September in State Supreme Court in Buffalo, says the state gives Buffalo charter school students as little as three-fifths of the amount that their peers in traditional public schools get.

With a per-pupil gap of close to $10,000, Buffalo has one of the largest disparities in the state, according to the suit.

Because the formula does not give charter schools money for capital needs or debt service, the suit says, charter schools must divert their already shortchanged classroom dollars to pay the rent, instead of using the money to hire more teachers and upgrade facilities.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to come up with a formula that gives charter schools adequate funding so they can provide their students with a sound, basic education.

At Thursday’s hearing, Assistant State Attorney General Alissa Wright urged Justice Donna M. Siwek to dismiss the suit against the state, Education Department, Legislature and governor because she said the plaintiffs have not presented facts showing that the state funding is inadequate.

She noted that even without capital funding, charter school students still outperform their counterparts in Buffalo Public Schools.

On state assessment tests, 23 percent of Buffalo charter school students were deemed proficient in math last year, compared with 13 percent of students in city public schools. In reading, about 18 percent were deemed proficient, compared with 12 percent of those in city schools.

Leah Kelman, one of the attorneys for the charter school parents, acknowledged that the charter school students performed better than their public school counterparts but said those test scores are still too low.

Wright told the judge that the plaintiffs are asking the court to usurp the role of the state’s legislative and executive branches by ordering them to provide charter schools with more funding.

But Susan T. Dwyer, another attorney for the charter school parents, said the courts are the proper setting for policing how the legislative and executive branches spend money on education.

She said the issue boils down to whether charter school students have a constitutional right to capital funding. She said they do because they are public school students and the state must provide them with a sound, basic education.

But Wright said the state is not obligated to provide capital funding for charter schools because they are not subject to the same constraints as traditional public schools on hiring and firing of teachers and other issues.

The lawsuit, backed by the Northeast Charter Schools Network, also alleges that the state’s funding formula discriminates against poor and minority children, who make up the vast majority of charter school students.

The suit says 90 percent of charter school students are black or Hispanic, and about 80 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, the school system’s measure of poverty.

By contrast, the percentage of black and Hispanic students in New York State’s non-charter public schools is 42 percent. About 54 percent are deemed to be living in poverty.

In the Buffalo Public Schools, about 68 percent of students are black or Hispanic, and 82 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunches.

Following Thursday’s hearing, some of the parents who filed the suit spoke out against the state’s motion to dismiss their legal action.

“We deserve our day in court,” said Ingrid Knight, whose daughter, Giselle Jacobs, is a third-grader at Elmwood Village Charter School. “Our children deserve fair funding for their education and the hope of a better future.”

The judge said she will rule soon on the state’s motion.