Jewish World Review May 2, 2002 / 20 Iyar, 5762
John H. Fund
Democratic legislators and state teacher unions are pushing the argument that the attack's aftershocks on the state budget should block the opening of any new charter schools--independent public schools that operate with more flexibility and freedom--for two years. "Charter schools drain precious resources from public schools," says Assemblyman Paul Tonko, an upstate Democrat. "This extraction of funds could result in multimillion-dollar shortfalls for local school systems." His bill would stop the opening of a dozen charter schools in the state that have already been approved for operation. To date, only 32 charter schools have been allowed to open, in part because of bureaucratic resistance.
Charter-school supporters, who gathered for a rally yesterday at Manhattan's South Street Seaport, couldn't disagree more. "I have a school that's in the middle of opening," says Jerry Jennings, the Democratic mayor of Albany, the state capital. Albany already has the promising New Covenant charter school managed by Edison Schools, and is set to open the Brighter Choice charter school in September.
In fact, charters are a bargain, says Lisa Coldwell O'Brien, president of the state's Charter Schools Association. "Charters get only 70% of what the public schools spend per student, so the district doesn't lose money if kids go to charters." Rochester public schools spend $11,742 a student, vs. just $7,445 a year for charter schools--and charters have to erect and maintain their own buildings out of that amount.
Charter schools have exploded in popularity since the first one opened in Minnesota a decade ago. According to Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, today some 2,400 in 37 states educate nearly 600,000 students. Their academic programs are generally more vigorous than those of ordinary public schools; three of four such schools concentrate on college preparation, a back-to-basics curriculum, or a science/math emphasis.
Allegations that charter schools engage in "cream skimming" by taking the most promising students are refuted by studies in several states. In March, the Charter School Institute of the State University of New York released a study that found the 9,000 students attending charter schools in New York are the most at risk academically. On average, students at New York charters have reading skills in the 31st percentile and math skills in the 30th percentile--that is, they scored worse than roughly 70% of all students--based on national tests. Every charter school studied by the institute had an extensive waiting list.
The reasons for the waiting list are made abundantly clear by parents attending the school choice rally. Kenya Campbell is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn but she sends her own son to Community Partnership Charter School. "You can't get successful students out of the old model of public education that's now being used," she says. "You need innovation and new ideas and that's what choice in schools brings." Alnando Learpel, Community Partnership parent, echoes Ms. Campbell's thoughts: "The schools have become consumed with politics and controlled by special interests who don't put the kids first. New York City schools were the best in the country when I went to them. Now they're something parents flee from."
The main speaker at the charter school rally was Randy Daniels, New York's Democratic secretary of state. With a skill and tempo that must have been honed inside black churches, he exhorted the crowd to reject those "who don't care if your kids have a chance in life, those who oppose giving parents a choice and those who accept a system that fails to educate our young."
Sometimes the opposition to reform goes beyond mere acceptance of failure and becomes guerilla warfare. In Roosevelt, N.Y., a largely black and Hispanic Long Island suburb, Zena Zahran and other black parents helped open a charter school. The local school board attacked it as a tool of white interests, and a black church refused to let it meet on its premises. Ms. Zahran told the Washington Post that many black leaders "are caught up in an Uncle Tom complex where if someone is trying to help or raise questions, it's portrayed as a threat to black power."
The school board stalled on paying the salaries of the charter school's teachers, as was required by state law, for almost a year. The school would have closed if Steven Klinsky, the leading private manager of charter schools in New York state, hadn't stepped in and advanced the school the money out of his own personal funds.
Mr. Klinsky is pessimistic about the political future of charter schools in New York. "The Legislature did just enough to say we tried reform, but have imposed a cap of just 100 charters for the entire state. They will fight to keep the number that open below that."
Nonetheless, Mr. Klinsky said it's important to prove that charters can improve the lot of disadvantaged students, which is why he's working hard to beat the moratorium. It's clear from looking at the faces of the hundreds of students gathered here yesterday that the union-backed ban would be more than a mere moratorium on choice in schools. It would be a moratorium on the hopes and dreams of all the parents on the waiting list for charter schools that their children will get a decent
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