By Larry Scott
Special to The News
Let me first state that I believe there are charter schools in Buffalo that effectively provide alternative and innovative approaches to educating students. West Buffalo Charter is one such example. Its leaders are to be commended for strategically establishing self-contained classrooms for students with severe disabilities, the first charter to do so in Western New York.
I personally know charter advocates and parents, whom I believe are well-intentioned and want what’s best for children. I also respect parents’ right to choose a charter school to educate their child.
When first begun, charter schools were intended to operate as partners with and models to traditional public schools for educating our neediest students. As they’ve developed and expanded, this vision did not fully materialize. In Buffalo, newly proposed charter school operators have not contacted the District to determine where there may be a need unmet by the District or where a partnership may be mutually beneficial, whether a geographic location or student need. Rather, proposed charter school operators come to town with a continued focus on opening general education elementary schools, for which there are already plenty of seats at District schools in good standing and existing charter schools.
The decision to open new charter schools rests with decision-makers hundreds of miles away, at the State University of New York and New York State Education Department, in Albany. It is unconscionable that the Buffalo School Board doesn’t have a meaningful say or veto power over the decision to add new charter schools to this oversaturated market, where more than 20% of Buffalo students attend charter schools.
Unlike traditional public schools, charters do not require a publicly elected board and are often not subject to open records or open meeting laws. In fact, other than safety and health, civil rights, and state assessments, state law says that “a charter school shall be exempt from all other state and local laws, rules, regulations or policies governing public or private schools, boards of education and school districts and political subdivisions, including those related to school personnel and students ….”
Public shut out
In the fall of 2016, judges from the Appellate Division confirmed the lack of public governance of charter schools, denying a lawsuit alleging that state funding to charters was unconstitutional. The Appellate Division concluded that charters are not established by the state constitution and that they are exempt from a “multitude of rules and regulations” and are free to exclude particular students, unlike traditional public schools which accept all children.
Essentially, funding provided from a residing school district remains the only public aspect about charters. As soon as these public funds reach the private manager, they are no longer accountable to the public.
Systemically, charters have not proven to be a panacea for the challenges in urban education, including Buffalo. Using the arbitrary New York State Education Department assessments for comparison (2019), the average rate of “proficiency” for all Buffalo charters is only 10% higher in math and 7% higher in ELA, than Buffalo Public Schools as a whole. When factoring in that BPS educates more than three times as many English Language Learners (18%) and almost two times as many students with disabilities (23%) than Buffalo charters, the difference is probable, independent of all other variables. Furthermore, if you remove the top four performing charters, whose student populations are also disparately white and economically advantaged, the “proficiency” rate for Buffalo charters is only 3% higher in math and 1.5% higher in ELA.
The second largest expenditure in the Buffalo Public School budget is tuition for 17 Buffalo charter schools, projected to be $133.9 million this school year. This expenditure has grown exponentially since 2001, when the cost totaled just $2.1 million. In addition, the District passes through to charters supplies and direct services, such as transportation, food service and special education, amounting to approximately $21 million annually, for a total District cost of $154.9 million. If four new charter applicants are authorized by the State Education Department, the District projects an additional $33.2 million annual expense for charters after five years. Meanwhile, the local Board also has no say over the spending of per-student charter tuition or charter school policies.
A funding problem
The State’s established process for funding charters is problematic. Using the District as a pass-through, the state mandates a formula to determine charter tuition using the District’s approved operating expenses. This method penalizes the District for its more costly services, such as those incurred by special education and English Language Learners, as well as legacy costs, such as retiree health care and a higher-paid workforce. For example, in 2017-18, the cost of retiree healthcare added $1,400 per charter student pupil, totaling $12.5 million for the year. Consequently, as the budget for BPS grows to fund initiatives under Superintendent Kriner Cash’s New Education Bargain, so too does the expenditure for charter tuition. Additionally, as the state increased per-student charter tuition, charter net asset reserves increased by 123%, from $42.2 million in 2010-11 to $94.0 million at the end of 2017-18 (this excludes one for-profit charter whose remaining funds are transferred to the for-profit entity).
In September of 2017, the Buffalo Board of Education passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters in Buffalo, citing concern with the lack of local authorization and governance. This past August, the Board unanimously passed a resolution calling on the State Education Department to reject four new charter school applications for not meeting the Department’s Charter Office requirements and impeding on Buffalo Public Schools’ commitment to sustain and grow the New Education Bargain with students and parents.
Seven existing charters presented to the Buffalo Board of Education at renewal hearings in fall. Many of these charters lacked an explanation or plan to address racial and economic disparities in their student populations, low percentage of students with disabilities and English Language Learners, and the significant amount of students exiting their school, some at a rate of 20-25% annually.
Long wait lists for charters are often cited, yet, over the past few years, there is evidence of growing fluctuation in the number of filled seats at charters, compared to those that are budgeted, indicating a saturation point. Each school year, hundreds of students exit charters so student numbers fall under budget, and often do so before state assessments. For example, in 2017-18, more than 660 students exited charters, many of whom enrolled in BPS, while paid tuition does not follow them back to BPS.
Need for equity
The Every Student Succeeds Act and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s education budget rightfully emphasize equity in funding across schools. It is time for New York State to establish equity and fairness when funding charter schools and reconstruct how they are funded.
First, we need to end using the District as a pass-through and establish a separate funding process based strictly on the needs of charter students, and not the needs of BPS students and its related costs for their education. Charter schools should no longer be funded at the expense of BPS students and their needs.
Second, and immediately, Cuomo can sign a bill passed by the State Assembly and Senate to provide Charter School Transitional Aid at the beginning of the school year, rather than the end. Doing so would help reduce by $9.5 million the annual budget revenue shortfalls of well over $20 million, which hinders BPS from investing in needed staff and programs each year.
Third, the State needs to change how it funds two District sponsored/converted charters. These two charters receive the allotted per-student tuition, but do not receive additional charter school transitional aid like all other charters. Consequently, the District has been shorted $22.0 million dollars over a three-year period.
Fourth, we have had four Buffalo charters close over the past few years. As of July 1, 2013, state legislation required that remaining public assets of a closed charter be returned to their student’s district. To date, most of these assets have not been returned to Buffalo Public Schools. The exception is Pinnacle Charter School, which returned only $262,000 to the District in November 2018, while it had $3.8 million in net assets and $3.0 million in cash at the end of its final year of operations. These assets are public funds that should be returned in their entirety to the public school district to be invested in our Buffalo students. It is time for the state to establish a process to enforce current legislation that compels these public funds be returned in a timely manner.
With 90% of our Buffalo students exhibiting extraordinary needs, they encounter incredible inequities in programming, opportunities and supports compared to our suburban students. They deserve equitable access to art, music, librarians, advanced placement and accelerated courses, mental health professionals, and specialists in reading and math. Making the above changes and reforming how charters are authorized, funded and governed will allow the Buffalo Board of
Education to advance its commitment to improve access, equity, opportunity and quality for all of our students.
Larry Scott is an at-large member of the Buffalo School Board. Email him at email@example.com.