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Regents err in declining to reauthorize high-performing Buffalo charter school

Memo to Buffalo schools, especially its charters: Don’t try so hard. The Board of Regents doesn’t really want you to succeed.

Such is the apparent thinking of the Regents, who voted this month to close the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, depriving current and future students of the superior education it delivers. Unless matters change, the vote against authorizing a five-year renewal of the school’s charter means the school will close at the end of June. That’s not what Buffalo needs.

The school known as BuffSci finds itself caught in the crossfire between the Buffalo Public Schools and the charter school movement. The students, innocent bystanders in this battle, will be the victims if the shutdown happens.

Some charters fail to win renewal due to falling test scores or other indicators of lackluster performance. BuffSci, on the other hand, is not lacking in luster. The school’s graduation rate was 94% last year. For grades three through eight, more than 45% of BuffSci students were proficient in English language arts last year, state data shows. About 53% were proficient in math.

As of 2018, the countywide proficiency rates in Erie County were 39% for ELA and 40% for math; Buffalo’s districtwide rates were 25% for ELA and 21% for math.

Only a handful of Buffalo schools have better proficiency scores than BuffSci.

How do the Regents explain this to the school? Let’s give it a try …

“You had one job and you did it brilliantly. But we need to shut you down.”

The decision defies logic.

Money, of course, lies at the heart of the tension between the district and the charters. Charters are public schools that are run independently. School districts are required to redirect state aid to charters for every student they enroll. State aid formulas are based on student numbers. When enrollment in a traditional district drops due to students leaving for charter schools, the district eventually has to make do with less aid.

Also, districts such as Buffalo’s complain that as families choose charters, the district is left to educate a greater proportion of students with disabilities and English language learners, groups that need more resources and are more expensive to educate.

The concerns are understandable, but they don’t tell the whole story. State aid does not belong to the districts – it is doled out to educate students. Students or families who opt for charter schools, which are public schools, are just as entitled to their share of state support.

Rather than trying to limit competition from charters, the districts that run traditional public schools need to find ways to educate their students efficiently and effectively, knowing they cannot count on an ever-flowing faucet of state funding.

Catherine Collins represents Western New York on the Board of Regents. Collins said at the board’s May 4 meeting that she would vote “no” on BuffSci’s renewal due to her concerns about the district’s finances as our state and region cope with Covid-19.

“I think it would be irresponsible of us to approve (the renewals) and obligate these districts … to spend the kind of money you need to support the public schools as well as the charter schools,” said Collins, who served on the Buffalo School Board from 2004 to 2009.

Other Regents followed her lead and voted against reauthorizing BuffSci. The Regents did approve reauthorizing five other charters up for renewal, including two from Buffalo, Health Sciences and Charter School of Applied Technologies.

Was Buffalo Academy of Science singled out for revenge because it has been so successful? The voting makes it appear that way, which would be unbecoming of the state’s governing body for higher education.

Joseph Polat, the school’s executive director, is pushing for the Board of Regents to reconsider his school’s fate at its June meeting. It should reconsider and reverse.

Just last December, the Regents gave approval to BuffSci building a second school. That was one of only two applications for charter schools the Regents approved that month, out of 26 that applied.

Buffalo Academy of Science, which began 16 years ago, has an enrollment of 780 students that is 65% African American and 90% from low-income households. In a year when many of those families are coping with strains from the coronavirus pandemic, it would be disruptive and cruel to make them all have to find new schools for their children. BuffSci has earned the right to continue its mission.

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