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Public charters don’t deserve second-class status

Once again in 2016, New York’s charter school students, most of whom are poor, minority and urban, dramatically outperformed their local district schools on New York’s standardized math and English Language Arts exams. But here’s the really good news. Despite their high poverty demographics, the state’s charter school students not only outperformed their local district counterparts, they outperformed the entire state average by 6 percentage points in math and 2 percentage points in ELA, thereby debunking the myth that poverty is an acceptable excuse for chronic academic failure.

Locally, at Rochester Prep Elementary Charter School, where 90 percent of the students live in poverty, 90 percent are minority and 8 percent are classified as “special education,” student math scores actually equaled or exceeded those found in Pittsford and Brighton.

Yet critics, in defense of the status quo, often contend that charter schools aren’t really “public schools” despite the fact that state education law codifies charters’ public status in multiple places. Public charter schools are bound by New York’s Open Meetings Law, are subject to audit by the state comptroller as well as oversight from their chartering entity (either SUNY or the Board of Regents), which must also approve every charter school board of trustees appointment.

Charter school admissions are lottery-based, with schools prohibited from knowing a child’s prior academic record until after the student has been admitted. So, New York’s charter outperformance isn’t due to “cream skimming” the best student applicants, as is often alleged, but rather to the schools themselves. While each charter school is different, common themes tend to be a culture of discipline and accountability, coupled with extended school days.

Is every charter school great? Of course not. In some states, where the vetting of charter school sponsors is less rigorous than in New York, charter school outcomes are somewhat less impressive. But charters are only issued for a maximum five-year term, after which each school must demonstrate to its chartering entity that its student outcomes justify renewal. This isn’t a rubber-stamp process, especially in New York. Since 2001, 33 New York charter schools have had their renewal applications denied, two of them here in Rochester. If only district schools were held to this same rigorous performance standard!

Remarkably, charter schools produce these outcomes while operating with significantly lower per-pupil taxpayer funding than district schools. But beyond this operational funding differential, here’s an even greater injustice. Charter schools are allotted zero taxpayer dollars for school building acquisition and refurbishment. The $1.3 billion New York is providing the Rochester City School District to modernize its existing building infrastructure translates to roughly $45,000 per student. That’s just to modernize what is already in place.

In contrast, charter schools receive zero taxpayer facilities funding, which means school trustees must go out, hat-in-hand, to the donor community just to put a roof over their public school students’ heads. That’s simply not right.

While roughly 16 percent of Rochester children now attend charter schools, demand exceeds the available admissions slots. The absence of facilities funding is the dominant barrier to meeting this pent-up demand. Available donor dollars barely provide sufficient space for Rochester’s current charter school student population, and many of Rochester’s charter schools are housed in buildings well over a century old. So, despite their superior academic achievements, the state treats public charter school students and their families as second-class citizens.

Every child learns differently. Some need a rigid structure, others a more experiential learning environment. Some gravitate toward a STEM-focused curriculum, others toward the arts. Some thrive in a single-sex setting, others within a co-educational experience. That’s the beauty of the charter school model. They aren’t cookie cutter, one size fits all. Each school approaches education differently, affording parents an opportunity to select the school whose educational model is best suited to their individual child’s needs.

But until New York acknowledges the injustice of leaving charter school children to the mercy of charity to put a roof over their heads, the freedom to select the best educational option for their children will continue to elude far too many Rochester families. It’s an injustice that should anger anyone who sees educational success as the pathway to escaping poverty.

Geoffrey Rosenberger is board chairman of True North Rochester Preparatory Charter Schools, a network of six charter schools in Rochester.

10/21/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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