Amani Charter School co-founder Charles Stern discusses the great work his school is doing, and the need for fair facilities funding for all of New York's charter schools.
Amani Public Charter School serves Mount Vernon students who want a better education. But the school must divert funding to pay for its building because the state does not provide aid for facilities.
Mount Vernon parents struggle with where to send their children to school. The achievement gap versus neighboring districts widens in the middle and high school years. Parents find alternatives – private schools, "tuitioning in" to other districts or some just move to another ZIP code.
As parents in Mount Vernon, my wife and I knew that if we wanted to change this depressing situation, we had to step up.
The result was Amani Public Charter School, founded by my wife, Debra Stern, and me, in 2011. It was important to both of us to provide educational options to parents who otherwise wouldn't have them. Amani's dedicated staff and teachers have been able to provide a great education for Mount Vernon children in grades 5-8. Amani manages to do all this despite the fact that our students are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to a critical part of their education.
That part is state aid for facilities. Every public school child in Mount Vernon receives state aid for their school buildings except those who attend Amani. That means money that should go toward their classroom instruction instead must go to pay for the school building itself.
How is that fair? How is that right? It's absurd. It's anti-education and terrible public policy.
Amani serves students who are already at a disadvantage. Four out of five of our children are in the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program. Their parents want and deserve school choices. The lack of state building aid only makes it harder.
Mount Vernon children in charters and their peers throughout the state are being denied building aid that regular public school kids receive due to a glaring omission in New York state law. Charter schools in private spaces are simply out of luck, and for schools outside of New York City, co-location of charters in public school buildings has not been offered.
Last year, state leaders passed a law giving new or expanding charter schools guaranteed space or funds to help pay for space. But that law left out half of all charter schools in the state – schools like Amani Public Charter School, which is housed in private space. That includes every single charter school outside of New York City.
A fifth of Amani's school budget is spent on the building and its expenses – expenses that have nothing to do with educating students.
We should not have to divert money meant for students to help pay for our space. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity.
Amani means a great deal to Mount Vernon and to the families it serves. Amani scholars are outperforming their peers in the regular public schools. We have a waitlist and families are fighting to get their children a seat here. You see it when the lottery happens. You see it when parents shed tears when their child wins a seat. You see it when parents shed tears when their child doesn't.
We want to make this school special for the students. But we can't do it alone. This must be the year that lawmakers in Albany heed our voices and provide funding equity for facilities to the other half of the state's charter schools – and the 49,000 public school children statewide being denied their fair share. Let's finish the job this year and set all of our children up for a chance to succeed.
The writer is co-founder of the Amani Public Charter School in Mount Vernon.
This originally appeared on The Journal News.
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