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EDITORIAL: State must help charter schools spread

Long Island charter schools

Long Island charter schools Credit: Newsday composite

A growing charter school movement, fueled by parents unhappy with poorly performing school districts, is shaking the foundations of education in New York - and increasingly here on Long Island.

Two charters opened in Hempstead this fall, bringing the Island's total to five. And the State University of New York, one entity that approves charters, expects more Long Island applicants by its mid-January deadline.

This surge of interest, while as yet small, could result in more pressure on conventional public schools to do a better job of educating, especially for groups that have long been underserved: learning-disabled students and those living in the Island's pockets of poverty with high black and Hispanic populations.

Other school districts in New York where charters are more prevalent are already closing failing schools and pushing for better test scores. Statewide, 30,000 students are on waiting lists for SUNY charters.

Similar pressure is especially welcome here, where the Island's history of de facto housing segregation and quilt of tiny school districts have conspired to create low-performing schools in minority neighborhoods.

Grassroots demand for charter schools - which are publicly funded but operate free of most rules and curriculum requirements governing established public schools - is being accelerated by an incentive grant program from the Obama administration. The first round of $4.3 billion in "Race to the Top" grants will be awarded in April. They're aimed at states that can suggest innovative ways to eradicate long-standing problems: students poorly prepared for college or work; clumsy measurements of student achievement; mediocre or scarce teachers and principals; failing schools.

A full 40 points, out of 500, will be awarded for ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other alternative schools. At a time when several states are teetering on bankruptcy - New York faces an $8-billion deficit heading into the budget process next month - the "Race to the Top" incentives are already pushing states toward more generous charter school policies. Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told legislators that he wanted not only to meet minimum federal requirements, but to surpass everyone else.

New York should take the same attitude. Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents that governs New York schools, recently said it's time to "start the conversation" on lifting this state's 200-charter school cap. Her comments are welcome, but New York is only 36 schools beneath that cap. SUNY and the Regents, which also approve charters, could fill those slots this spring. That close to the limit, "starting the conversation" may not be as rousing a charge as is needed to persuade the federal government to invest its "Race to the Top" dollars in New York.

Begun in Minnesota in 1991, charter schools rely on state funding and do not charge parents extra, as private schools do. If the demand for enrollment exceeds the space available, students' names are chosen by lottery. Parents like charters for their personal attention to students, discipline and focus on academics. Charters are free to experiment with performance-boosting ideas such as longer school days or merit pay for teachers. In exchange, they promise better academic results. Whether they are truly delivering was the subject of dueling national studies last summer.

Locally, though, the experience at Roosevelt Children's Academy charter school has proven persuasive. Located in one of the worst-managed districts in the state - so bad that Albany took it over in 2002 - the charter boasts some of the highest test scores among charter schools statewide. Next door, Hempstead parents took note and sought the two charters that opened in September. As Wyandanch schools struggle with financial problems and bitter personnel battles, they could be next.

Raising the cap on charters will face resistance from the New York State United Teachers and the union-friendly Assembly. Charter advocates fear that the Assembly will try to revoke SUNY's right to charter schools, so the Board of Regents, chosen in a process dominated by the Assembly, can maintain tighter control. This should not be allowed to happen.

Instead, New York needs to look at a fairer funding path for charters. Today, they receive only 75 percent to 85 percent of per-pupil dollars from the state. That doesn't seem adequate. Charters also obtain no assistance with the cost of buying and maintaining buildings. New York should create a revolving loan fund to give qualified charters an easier source of capital.

In exchange, charters should open their meetings and books to public scrutiny. If they accept tax money, they should play by the rules of transparency that are normally required.

The quality of public schools has been stagnant at best. State leaders must heed the call from communities, as well as Washington, for more effective alternatives. hN