Monday, September 14, 2009

Buffalo Superintendent Phil Williams (or is it James Rumore?) Seeks Charter Moratorium

It's getting confusing in Buffalo.

School district boss, Phil Williams ...oops -- I mean James Rumore, opposed more charter schools last week. Wait, sorry. I think I'm getting the names mixed up, but does it matter anymore?

The Buffalo school district superintendent requested that the Regents not approve any more charter schools in Buffalo by imposing a moratorium unless the district supports the approvals. This brings the district full circle by adopting the long-held position of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Among the reasons cited by the superintendent for copy-catting the BTF stance is the supposed "significant fiscal drain" of $71.7 million this year.

It's a real source of frustration to see this number mentioned in the Buffalo News, which reported this story in Saturday's edition, without proper context. In fact, this charter expense is a bargain for the district in two significant ways:

1) This spending amounts to less than 10 percent of the Buffalo district's budget, totaling about $11,000 per student, even as charters are educating 15 percent of the students. That's a great deal considering the district is spending $18,000-plus on students in district schools.

2) Buffalo gets state foundation aid in the amount of $433 million, or more than $11,000 per student, which more than covers the amount the district pays for its charter school enrollment, as every charter school student remains in the district's enrollment data to generate foundation aid. In effect, the state -- not Buffalo -- already is paying for the city's charter schools.

Rather than this no mas approach, a school district leader in such an enviable financial position from charter schools should be making the opposite request of the Regents by demanding MORE charters, which would save the district money and enhance his leverage at the bargaining table with the district's unions.

Another reason the superintendent requests a charter moratorium is that the district's scores on state tests are supposely "improving." Someone needs to remind him that last year everyone's state test scores improved, including charter schools and those of the other 680 school districts in the state. More to the point, every charter school serving Buffalo students outperformed the district on both English and math results last year -- not just a majority of charters -- but every one of them.

The Buffalo superintendent has been supportive of charter schools in the generic sense. Yet every time a new one comes along, he falls back on the familiar pattern of every other school district leader and union boss by opposing them. As soon as the superintendent arrived on the job, he opposed Elmwood Village Charter School in December 2005, and has been predictable every since. It's a good thing for those students at Elmwood that the Regents ignored him, and they should continue to do so for any new charter application that meets the rigorous standard of quality.

The problem ultimately is that nothing has changed in the Buffalo district to warrant a freeze on new charters. Buffalo remains an academic basket case and parents still want other options. I suspect the Regents understand this all too well, which is why they've ignored similar calls for a charter school moratorium in the past.

While the Regents will hopefully continue to do what's right in terms of Buffalo charters, one charter application at a time, the superintendent should focus on righting the district and bringing about genuine improvements. That's a better use of his time.

While the Regents deal with the superintendent's tiresome letter -- hopefully with a stamp of "return to sender" -- he can take dubious comfort that the Buffalo Teachers Federation is in "strong agreement" with his moratorium request. Hence, it's getting difficult not to conflate the two leaders, Phil Williams and James Rumore (Ah, switch those first names).

Superintendent, sir: the last thing Buffalo students in charters and district schools need is a BTF echo chamber in City Hall.

Come home, Dr. Williams.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

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