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The Editorial Board: New life for two Buffalo charter schools, but is the district setting them up to fail?

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Westminster Community Charter School (copy) (copy)

Westminster Community Charter School, above, and Enterprise Charter School can remain open until at least 2024, following a court decision and an agreement with the Buffalo School District.

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The Buffalo City School District, which unsuccessfully tried to bully two charter schools out of existence last year, has come back with a two-year plan for their continuance – one that sounds reasonable but about which the schools’ supporters should be skeptical: Is the district setting those schools up to fail?

After all, the School Board last year schemed to close the schools without just cause. They were saved in June, when a judge called its bluff, giving Enterprise and Westminster charter schools a year’s reprieve. Last week, their runway was extended as the schools and the district agreed on specific targets for each school must meet by 2024 or close.

There is reason to mistrust School Board on this matter. Not only did it base its 2021 closure vote on old data, but – despite its insistence to the contrary – it didn’t factor in the terrible disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. So the question is: How reasonable are these new targets?

Some are readily doable and even obvious. Struggling schools should have new leadership. So both need to hire new principals. Westminster already has.

But questions arise: Their performances will be not measured by state assessments. The district instead will use the iReady assessment tool and it will measure both against specific Buffalo Public Schools. Why?

The targets are rigorous, Nathaniel J. Kuzma, the district’s general counsel, acknowledged. “If they don’t meet them, they are closed,” he said before drifting into fantasy: “Our objective all along really was to hold these schools accountable in the same way public schools are held accountable.”

Really? Traditional public schools are rarely closed, while one of the benefits of charters is that underperforming ones can be shut. That’s what differentiates them. What is more, Buffalo school leaders have made no effort to hide their disdain for charter schools, which they see as pilfering money from traditional public schools. They don’t acknowledge that the money belongs to the students – it follows them, not the buildings.

So the district’s efforts to close these schools is hardly surprising. Nor is it coincidental that they were the only charters in the state that were denied renewals last year and summarily ordered to close. Also persuasive/damning is that every member of the School Board was endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which also treats charter schools as somehow illegitimate.

Considered in that way, it would have taken a board of remarkable courage – not to mention common sense – to have negotiated a resolution last March instead of wasting time and money on a rotten effort to close two schools that are dear to the families that support them. But this isn’t that kind of board.

It is, perhaps, encouraging that leaders of both schools seem comfortable with the new agreement, even given the School Board’ hostility to their existence. And, like many other Buffalo schools, they do need to improve. In both, students have struggled with English and math scores.

But it’s also appropriate to acknowledge that many of their students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, often living in neighborhoods hard hit by Covid-19. That matters.

High standards are surely appropriate; we should want all children to excel. The question is how fast the schools can be expected to meet them and how fair the School Board will be in evaluating the schools’ performances. It publicly flunked that test last year.

Here’s an idea: Pick a couple of similarly performing traditional schools and hold them to the same standards as the two charters and with the same piano dangling over their heads. See who survives. That would be fair.

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