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Editorial: Demand for charter schools meets a need

Garrison Keillor’s make-believe town of Lake Woebegone was “where all the children are above average.” That’s a fiction that is far from the reality of the Buffalo Public Schools, where a recent study found that only about 5 percent of the students were “high performing,” or faring above the state average on standardized tests.

That’s not good enough; a school system that doesn’t empower children to reach their full potential is one of the reasons why charter schools have been a growing phenomenon here. The opening of two new schools — Buffalo Collegiate Charter and Persistence Preparatory Academy — brings the total to 20 in our region, with two more in the pipeline. One out of five students in Buffalo attends a charter.

The movement runs into resistance from some participants in public education, who maintain that charter schools drain money from public schools, which is debatable. Buffalo’s Board of Education asked the state in September for a three-year moratorium on new charter schools, which was refused.

Instead of trying to shut out charters and their alternative approaches, Buffalo’s schools need to do better at getting results in the classroom. That’s the way to compete.

Charters are public schools that are independently run, allowing them to operate with greater flexibility than “traditional” public schools. Charters in Buffalo receive more than $13,000 per pupil from the home district.

Opponents of charters object to the funding model. As students migrate from traditional schools to charters, enrollment dips in the mainline public schools, which can cause a corresponding drop in state aid. There are fewer students for the districts to spend money on, but the districts in many case still must cover costs for transportation, special education and other areas.

The two new charters opened with support from the Cullen Foundation, an Erie County organization founded by the late industrialist Jack S. Cullen and dedicated to enhancing education in grades kindergarten through 12. Consultants hired by the foundation studied the Buffalo schools, both charter and district schools, and found that about 5 percent were “high performing.”

The foundation set a goal of adding another 3,500 high-performing seats across the city, with a focus on charters. Cullen Foundation money paid for founders of the two new charters to receive training from the Boston-based organization Building Excellent Schools, which focuses on coaching talent for urban charters.

Buffalo Collegiate Charter, on Jewett Avenue, and Persistence Preparatory Academy, on Michigan Avenue, both stress starting students early on a college preparatory track. If either falls short of its mission, to bring more educational opportunities to disadvantage youth, it could end up out of business. That was the fate of Oracle Charter on Delaware Avenue. Charters are, in that way, more accountable than traditional public schools.

“Our board says all the time, ‘If we can’t do what we promised, we should be shut down,’ ” Joelle Formato, founder of Persistence Prep, told The News.

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, says that funding that passes from the district to charters is a concern.

“It takes resources away from the school district, which undermines our programs.”

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash has been a supporter of charters generally, but takes a diplomatic approach on the friction within the district.

“There are some challenges but they can be worked out together. I just don’t like this ‘we versus them’ sort of approach,” Cash said last year.

More communication and camaraderie would benefit all city schools, district or charter.

Cash’s attempts to reform the school system are commendable and showing results. But until more positive educational outcomes come out of district schools, the demand for charters will only continue to grow. For the sake of the students, that demand needs to be met.

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