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September 26, 2001

Expert: New York's charter-school gains add to national momentum

The charter school movement is gaining momentum nationally, and the success of New York's charter schools is contributing significantly to the trend, the president of the Charter School Institute of the State University of New York told The Business Council.

Robert Bellafiore, President of the Institute and a national leader in the charter-schools movement, briefed The Council's Government Affairs Council (GAC) on charter schools in New York at the GAC's Sept. 19 meeting.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school-district bureaucracies and rules. New York's charter schools operate on five-year "prove-it-or-lose-it" contracts with the state, Bellafiore said. Each agreement addresses the school's unique mission and educational goals, as well as a broad range of performance metrics which schools must meet to retain their charters and keep operating.

In 2001, 37 states have some 576,000 students in charter schools, an enrollment increase of 12 percent over last year. New York this year has 32 schools, up from 23 a year ago and just five in 1999, the first year of charter schools in New York, said Bellafiore, a former public affairs staffer for The Business Council.

Charter schools are important for two reasons, he said.

"First, they provide educational choices for kids, especially at-risk kids. That's why most charter schools are in inner cities.

"Second, they represent a shift from the traditional public-school rules-based system that emphasizes process to a performance-based system that measures results."

Part of the goal of charter schools is to create competition for traditional public schools. Although traditional public schools get one-third more state aid than charter schools, when a student leaves a public school for a charter school, some state aid moves from the public school to the charter school, Bellafiore said.

"Charter schools are subject to market forces - because if the school is lousy, parents will take their kids, and the dollars that come with kids, elsewhere," Bellafiore said.

Charter schools also introduce market pressure on district schools to improve their performance, he added, because these schools pass through some state aid if students leave their schools in favor of public charter schools.

District-run schools are already responding to these competitive pressures, Bellafiore said. One federal study showed that school districts that have lost funding because of students' transfers to charter schools have responded the fastest to improve their programs - and have typically done so by emulating many parts of charter schools' approach.

Signs of charter schools' momentum can be found in Buffalo and Rochester, which have a total of nine public charter schools. School distirct leaders in both cities are openly discussing converting significant numbers of schools, including successful magnet schools, to charter status.

For more information, visit www.newyorkcharters.org.