Charter parents sue New York State for more money


For years, charter school advocates have touted lower operating costs as one of charters' chief benefits. But operating on fewer dollars has become a huge handicap, says a lawsuit filed yesterday by five families — one from Rochester and four from Buffalo — with children attending charter schools.

The suit says that New York's method for funding charter schools violates the state’s constitution. Brown v. New York, which was filed in the State Supreme Court in Erie County, says that charter students receive as little as three-fifths of what host districts receive to educate students in the same communities. 

For example, using data provided by the University of Arkansas, charter schools in the Rochester area receive $6,633 per student while the Rochester school district receives nearly $21,000 per student. (The data was provided by Northeast Charter Schools Network, a regional advocacy group for charter schools. Chip Partner, spokesperson for the Rochester school district, says that the district receives $12,090 per general education student, and as much as $25,230 per special ed student. But the district also provides charter schools in the area with transportation, health services, and instructional materials, Partner says.)

Charter schools need more funding, advocates say, because the demand for seats in their schools is high; there are 50,000 students statewide on waiting lists to get into charters schools. And meeting the demand for better facilities, and policy changes such as implementing the Common Core curriculum have heightened the need for more funding, says Andrea Rogers Barry, director of policy for Northeast Charter Schools Network. 

Charter advocates say that the money is also needed to provide for basic services and to more fairly address their most stubborn cost, building aid. Charter schools don't receive building aid funds from the state and typically don't have the funds to purchase a building.

At a press conference yesterday to announce the lawsuit, Jeffrey Halsdorfer, principal of Eugenio Maria De Hostos Charter School, said that his school is operating in two buildings and the additional funding might allow the school to consolidate into one. But gymnasiums, libraries, and cafeterias are also on the wish list.

The suit cites the Campaign for Fiscal Equity cases in 1995 and 2003, when the New York Court of Appeals held that all students are constitutionally entitled to “sound basic education,” including adequate facilities and basic instruments for teaching and learning. Despite the CFE outcome, most public school officials around the state says that that the government essentially ignored the ruling and continues to inadequately fund public education. 

No specific dollar amount is cited in the suit and advocates say that the purpose of the legal fight is not to take money away from students in host district schools. They are asking for parity, they say. And they say that charter school students are already doing better academically than students in their host districts, and that they could do even better with more money.

But the suit raises questions for taxpayers. Additional funding would have to come from somewhere and in the current anti-tax environment, it's likely that at least some funding would have to be diverted from traditional public schools.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide advocacy group for public schools, issued a statement calling the suit a "deceptive PR stunt."

“Despite the fact that public schools are severely underfunded, Wall Street-backed charter school groups continue to use aggressive propaganda to win more public school dollars,” the statement says. 

The suit also says that the funding formula for charters is unconstitutional and does not treat charters' students equally. But that's debatable, critics say, because parents have chosen to remove their children from their traditional public school and place them in a charter — a choice that's similar to placing their child in a private school. 

Whatever the outcome of Brown v. New York, if charter schools receive funding that's on par with traditional public schools — and maybe they should — the public should also be aware that we will be taking another step toward operating parallel public school systems. And that wasn't the original vision for charter schools.