Friday, March 06, 2009


Not everyone can resemble a famous actor. But can actors pretend with numbers?

Buffalo News Ramps Up Charter Funding Debate

Gary Crosby, the Chief Financial Officer of the Buffalo Public Schools, on Feb. 22nd responded to my op-ed from the prior week in the Buffalo News which was critical of his scapegoating of charter schools for the district's financial woes.

Mr. Crosby claimed neither he, nor his boss, Superintendent Williams, are anti-charter. This is good. Still, Mr. Crosby misses several key points in the charter funding debate, including the following:

  • Crosby wrongly claims charters receive the "same per pupil amount the district spends." In fact, charters are receiving one-third to 40 percent less than the Buffalo district and this gap is not made up by district administrative costs or in-kind support of transportation or textbooks, as Crosby claims - not even close. The primary reason for the gap is that charters must fend for themselves for facility leases and capital improvements since they get no building funds.

  • Charter schools are spending less than the district because they get less than the district. Crosby instead claims they do so because their expenses are less, which rings like the chicken-and-the-egg/cart-before-the-horse argument (pick your metaphor). In fact, charters cannot run up expenses the way Buffalo has for decades because they can't tax property nor expect the state to bail out their excesses. Thus, charters have to manage well by attracting talent while restraining expenses to avoid bankrupting themselves. With less funding they have managed to outperform the district schools on state exams results.

  • Crosby claims he is "not taking issue with the money charters receive." He instead claims that he doesn't like the way charters are funded by the district. What Crosby fails to consider is that if the state assumes charter funding, it will invariably cut Buffalo's school aid that now includes charter students since the state will not -especially in this fiscal climate - pay twice forever for the same students. This is a key reason the funding was set up this way in the first place. Crosby must be counting on the state holding harmless Buffalo's school aid - a risky assumption at best.

  • Unfortunately, Mr. Crosby still won't acknowledge that the funding system he pines for, in reality, already exists for Buffalo. The Buffalo district is a pass-through since state aid on a proportionate basis more than covers district charter expenses. No other district with charter schools has as lopsided state aid ratio as Buffalo, which effectively removes any local expense for charter students.

  • As residents of the district, the most efficient mechanism to fund charter students is by the district, which in turn is provided state foundation aid, transportation aid, textbook aid, and state transition aid to offset charter expenses. This also is necessary since charter schools are not governmental entities with taxing authority to make up for a reduction in state funding. In Buffalo's case, district charter expenses are offset entirely by the state.

  • The claim that Buffalo cannot realize commensurate savings from the loss of charter students is a long-shopworn excuse that has no merit after 15 percent of the student body (6,000 students) has departed district schools for charters.

Charter schools are certainly a competitive challenge to any school district, since they compete to serve resident students. The state has softened this competition by increasing school aid to those districts, which is never acknowledged by district administrators anywhere in the state. In this sense, Mr. Crosby is predictably similar to his district counterparts elsewhere.

Charter schools certainly do not wish to be adversarial with their districts, since both have responsibilities to serve and educate students. Buffalo charters, from all I can tell, want nothing more than to work cooperatively with the Buffalo Public Schools, including Mr. Crosby and his colleagues, to better fulfill their vital and mutual responsibilities.

Mr. Crosby and Superintendent Williams no doubt have a very difficult task in managing the second largest school district in the state, with all the challenges a low-wealth, urban setting brings. They didn't create the legacy costs and other pre-existing problems, but they also accepted the job to address them. I wish them the best, and hope they will use charters as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

-Peter Murphy
For the Chalkboard

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