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Editorial: Demand for charter schools sends a message to district

Buffalo’s parents are voting with their feet – or, more precisely, with their children’s feet. Demand for spots in city charter schools is unrelenting and, whatever the critics of those school may say, they are serving a public need. The only way that need will diminish is for regular public schools to improve their performance – a development that would benefit all of Buffalo.

The enrollment growth in charters has been continuous, and as a result, the number of charter schools is on the rise. Two new schools opened in the city this year and two others are expected to open next year. Three more are under development.

In the state’s second-largest city, it is no surprise that only New York City sponsors more charter schools. The eye-opener is in this statistic: With one in five Buffalo children who attend a public school choosing a charter, the percentage of students attending a charter in this city is the state’s highest.

Already, an estimated 9,000 students are attending a charter school and around 3,000 families are on a waiting list, according to Jason Zwara, policy manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the advocacy organization for charters in Buffalo.

That’s a level of demand that needs to be taken seriously. Even opponents of charter schools would be wise to acknowledge that those simmering pressures arise from a legitimate source. How would those stresses assert themselves if parents didn’t have the safety valve that charter schools provide?

Charters have their own rules of operation and can be more flexible than the bureaucracy of the Buffalo Public Schools allows. For example, charters can set standards for personnel and decide how long the school day and school year should be.

As News staff reporter Jay Rey recently wrote, charters can tailor their curriculums to a particular theme. Students at the Western New York Maritime Charter School wear naval uniforms and follow military discipline; the focus at Tapestry Charter School is on “expeditionary learning.”

At this point, charters have become part of the educational mainstream. There may be some value in recalibrating how they are funded, but they should be viewed as a permanent part of the state’s educational infrastructure, rather than as add-ons that can be eliminated when and if city schools improve their performance.

Indeed, if the main function of charter schools is to give parents and students a chance for a better education, a secondary purpose is to increase the pressure on traditional schools to improve. The pressure may be unwanted, but so are many other effective inducements.

The good news is that, under Superintendent Kriner Cash, the schools are steadily improving, and he has laid out a plan to continue that trend. Good things are happening.

Cash, generally a supporter of charter schools, has hesitations about increasing their numbers as a matter of equity and teacher quality. But parents continue to demand space in charters. They want the best for their children and they don’t yet see traditional schools as an avenue for reaching that goal. That’s telling.

The best indicator that it’s time to stop adding charter schools in Buffalo is when Buffalo parents stop clamoring for them.

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