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Now the Voting's Over: Considering Charters vs. The Public Schools

During the lead-up to the Buffalo school board election held this week, news coverage and public attention were often focused on whether superintendent Pamela Brown should be retained in her position. At least one candidate, former board president Ralph Hernandez, sought to bring attention to another problem: the increase in the number of charter schools in the city. Two of the candidates for three at-large board seats, he charged, were committed to replacing much of the public school system with privately organized charter schools, continuing a weakening of the public system and the isolation of those students remaining in its schools. Tuesday, those two—Larry Quinn and Patricia Bowers Pierce—were elected. Hernandez was not.

Last Thursday, the Buffalo Teachers Federation released a report on the 17 charter schools in Buffalo that seemed to substantiate what Hernandez was concerned about. Simply put, the thrust of the BTF’s extensive report is that charters achieve academic results that are often little or no better than public schools, and they obtain these mediocre results even as they operate with a set of advantages the public schools can’t access.

Unofficial Buffalo School Board Results

Larry Quinn: 8,376 (16 percent)

Patti Bowers Pierce: 7,749 (15 percent)

Barbara A. Nevergold: 7,096 (14 percent)

Bernie Tolbert: 5,935 (11 percent)

John Licata: 4,695 (9 percent)

Sam Davis: 4,187 (8 percent)

Sergio Rodriguez: 3,233 (6 percent)

Gizelle Stokes: 2,923 (6 percent)

Ralph Hernandez: 2,612 (5 percent)

Wendy Mistretta: 2,224 (4 percent)

Stephon Wright: 1,134 (2 percent)

Adrian Harris: 1,010 (2 percent)

Stephen Buccilli: 853 (2 percent)

The study reports, for example, that of fifteen out of these 17 reporting to the state in 2011-12, 11 (73 percent) had over 50 percent of their students fail one or more of the fourth or eighth grade assessment tests. But a major deficiency of the report is that it provides no quantified comparison between the charters and the city’s seventy-two public schools. It is true that the heavy preponderance of scholarly examinations have found that American charter schools do no better than public schools. The BTF report doesn’t permit a reader to make such a comparison for Buffalo.

On the other hand, it does offer a perhaps telling compilation of socio-economic and other factors relevant to the charters, their operations, and their results. The union’s report strongly argues that charters and the district-run schools don’t compete on a level playing field. As the report’s executive summary says: “Poor charter school performance in light of the overwhelming under-representation of students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students in poverty, as well as horrific suspension rates” is an “indictment” of both the charters and the state bureaucracy that permits it.

Discounting the BTF’s dramatic language, and accounting for the absence of direct comparisons of academic achievement between the two systems (the BTF compares charters with all students in New York State), the report provides a valuable look at the composition of charter school student bodies and staff, and a comparison of several important indicators for both types of schools. It collects, charter school by school, data on free lunch eligibility (a common surrogate for poverty), proficiency in English, teacher credentials and turnover, and special needs students. The report concludes that charter schools in the city have importantly different students than public schools.

For instance, it finds that in 2011-12, only one charter, Pinnacle (now closed), had a percentage (18 percent) at or near the public schools’ total percentages of such students (20 percent). As the BTF reports, excluding Pinnacle, in 12 of 15 charters, only six to 13 percent were special needs enrollees, and in the other three, the percentages were from 14 to 16. (These figures are comparable to the national findings of the US Accountability Agency that while 11 percent of all students were special needs, charters enrolled only eight percent.)

For English language learners in 2011-12, the public schools figure was 11 percent. According to the BTF, 87 percent of Buffalo charters had from zero to five percent special needs enrollment. Only Enterprise had a percentage as high as 11. The differences for free lunch eligible students were narrower, but two of the city’s most academically successful charters, Elmwood Village and Tapestry, had only 31 and 35 percent, respectively, as opposed to the public schools’ 72 percent.

The demographics compiled by the union are important because the two systems compete for public monies, and supporters of public schools contend that when students transfer from public schools, costs don’t go down commensurately, even as dollars go along with the transferring student. They’re also relevant because socio-economic class is the strongest predictor of academic performance, stronger than either race or gender, as scholars such as Sean Reardon and Diane Ravitch have shown. If the charters are enrolling more of middle class and non-special needs students, vis-à-vis the public schools, the competition becomes skewed. And public schools are left to assist students with greater difficulties, as the system has less money.

BTF president Phil Rumore told Artvoice in a telephone interview, “My point is straightforward: Are we talking about apples and apples, or apples and kumquats? I just want a level playing field.”

Read the whole BTF report on charter schools on AV Daily at

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