It’s hard to find an article in the Buffalo News about the Board of Education when the paper does not laud the new majority as visionary change agents, who are well positioned to institute the bold decisions and actions needed to turn around this “failing” school district. Former State Education Commissioner, John King, Jr. another prominent member of the chorus, sang the praises of the group he said shared his philosophy of educational reform, of which a major component is the expansion of charter schools – that is “high performing” ones. The reformers are careful to use this descriptor so that they can differentiate these schools from ones that are not high performing and thus preclude debate or discussion about the merits and performance of charter schools.
The same language was used in the Buffalo Board majority’s “Request for Space” resolution that invited “high-performing charter management organizations and ……operators” to submit proposals to take over Bennett, East or Lafayette High and School #39. That’s right, the resolution and RFS, sponsored by Board member Larry Quinn, offered independent charters the “level playing field” to facilitate their applications for any or all of the space in these buildings. (The vote for this resolution was 5/4) Applications, due on January 7th, were received from the Charter School for Applied Technology, Tapestry Charter School, Health Sciences Charter School and ACES, a proposed charter school. CSAT and Tapestry both applied to take over Bennett High School, Health Sciences wants School #39 and ACES applied to acquire East High. No applications were received for Lafayette, but then it is the only one of the four schools that was not remodeled by the Joint Schools Construction Project.
Supporters argue that charter schools are public schools. And, in fact they are primarily funded with public money. In addition to the tuition the District pays for each child attending a charter school, it also provides transportation, food and other services for charter students. But charters differ from public schools in that they are governed by private boards, lack transparency by not making full financial disclosure and are not held to all the mandates imposed on the public schools. They have more flexibility and can be selective in the students they enroll. Ultimately, students who don’t make it in the charter can be sent back to the public school district ending the charter’s accountability for that student’s educational outcomes while contributing to the District’s.
Charter schools have a reputation of outperforming public schools, but a closer look at the data reveals that a significant number do not outperform their public school counterparts. We have local examples in Pinnacle and Community, which the State closed because of low performance. Further research has shown that charters do not serve groups of special education students or English Language Learners in numbers that reflect the percentage of these populations in the school district. As for teachers, charter school teachers are not evaluated by the new, controversial standards set for public school teachers.
Now that the charters’ applications are in and are public information, several questions can be answered about what type of agreements these charters want to negotiate with the District. Tapestry and CSAT want a “no cost” lease for Bennett beginning in September 2015. Yes, you read it correctly; they want to be given the building. But it doesn't stop with the building, they also want all assets; the furnishings, technology, books, etc. They also want the District to assume all or most of the utilities’ costs. In addition, they are asking the District to assume responsibility for any capital improvements that are deemed “required”. These two charters offer one scenario of joining forces in a collaboration to share the building. The Health Sciences Charter’s proposal is similar in requesting the entire School #39 building but is not as specific as the request of the other two charters. It’s likely, however, that they will follow suit in requesting the building, its contents and operational costs gratis.
And what will these charters offer in return? They've proposed taking over the “empty” buildings. That is “empty” of its most precious and vital assets: the students who currently attend these schools. That means that these students will be displaced. The charters will not offer them a seat next year. The charters say that they will look to expand some seats, but current Bennett, East or #39 students are not guaranteed a seat. The charters have their own admissions criteria and process, which the out-of-time schools students would have to follow. My concern, my questions and those of the community should be focused on: What about the students? Aren't they entitled to their buildings and assets? How are our students going to benefit from losing their schools to these charters? Secondarily, how will all of our students be impacted by the additional costs that these arrangements will add to a budget that is already stressed?
Will charters save the out-of-time schools? Not likely, at least not in a way that will help the students who are in those schools today. And it’s not likely that they’ll save any of the students any time soon if they get these school buildings. The students in the out-of-time schools will have to go elsewhere to continue their education and vital resources will be lost to other students in the district. In the justification to their own stakeholders some charter school leaders have even admitted that this expansion is only to benefit their student body and to save money in their own budgets. Remember that these are budgets that are already funded with public dollars. There’s a question of equity in this situation and if approved it begins the implementation of one board member’s vision: the “disassembling” of the Buffalo Public Schools.