DeVos on the Hot Seat School Choice, Charters Take the Stage By Natalie Baldassarre

President-Elect Donald Trump stoked the fervor of school choice advocates across the nation when he tapped Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. One thing America will learn during her Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing: DeVos, founder of a powerful school-choice advocacy group, is a big believer in charter schools.

While many on both sides of the political divide argue in favor of charters, some say this widespread school reform isn't all it's cracked up to be. Here in Western New York, these quasi-public schools have already left their mark on the education landscape.

Niagara Charter School (NCS), located just outside of Niagara Falls, is already having a significant impact on the Niagara Falls City School District (NFCSD).  Although the charter school is physically located in the Niagara-Wheatfield School District, $4 million is taken out of the NFCSD budget to fund NCS each year.

According to Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie, NCS has been detrimental to the school district - and to the students themselves.

For starters, out of the 330 kids that attend NCS, 310 of them come from the Niagara Falls City School District. "That isn’t enough kids to close classes or schools, there is no condensing," Laurrie said. "We no longer receive any transition aid from the state, so ultimately it hurts because it takes $4 million in resources from us."

Beyond the millions lost by the Niagara Falls City School District, Laurrie contends that the charter is also able to send students back to the District for just about any reason at all. He says this rigs academic results.

"Around State test time, more kids come back. They have gaps in their education for the State tests, and it lowers our test scores. They don’t play by the same rules, and it’s suspicious,” he said. "Last year their scores were worse than ours, this year [NCS scores] are way up."

When she hears charges that charter schools are just manipulating the effectiveness of our education system, Gina Dudkowski, an administrator at South Buffalo Charter School (SBCS), begs to differ.

"At SBCS our focus is integrating technology into the classroom along with character education. We offer smaller class sizes than you would see in the public schools, and we also offer intervention services for every grade level," Dudkowski said. "Our students look forward to what they can do here, they are enthusiastic."

When asked what she had to say to those who oppose charter schools, Dudkowski fired back. "Come and visit a charter school and see why it is different. Our students have longer days, even our teachers have longer days, and they are dedicated," she said. "Don’t believe everything you hear."

Mark Laurrie doesn't buy it, and says it's never more clear than when charter students return to public school. "The kids are coming in [to NFCSD] behind. NCS only goes until 6th grade, so eventually they come back to us. There's a lot of shuffling between schools and there is no continuity,” he said.

The Superintendent also alleged lack of transparency at the charter school: "Their Board of Education isn’t public, they're appointed, not elected. They use public dollars, but aren’t a good representative of the public. I see no difference in their calendar or curriculum, what is unique? NCS is in session 10 days longer than us. It isn’t transparent enough and they don’t play by the same rules."  

Although Laurrie opposes charter schools in Niagara Falls, which he calls "a small city that is dependent on State aid", he admits "there may be a place for charter schools in bigger cities."

Catherine Oldenburg is Commandant of the Western New York Maritime Charter School (WNYMCS), a naval school with a military component in Buffalo. Home to more than 400 students, WNYMCS emphasizes leadership, citizenship, and character development. “All cadets in grades 9-12 are members of the National Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, although only 10 percent of students actually pursue a career in the military after graduation” Oldenburg said.

In 2015, WNYMCS ranked 4th among the 62 public and charter schools in Western New York with a 97 percent graduation rate. Oldenburg also made it a point to recognize how much WNYMCS does for the local community. “Our Cadets do a lot of community service. They volunteer for numerous clean-up projects, color guard, and walk in parades,” she said.

When PoliticsNY asked the Commandant how the charter school responds to students who are not meeting school standards, Oldenburg bristled. “WNYMCS is not for everyone. We don’t just kick out the bad kids, but rather the kids who don’t fit our culture leave.” 

"We have student leaders that will correct other students, and some have a hard time with that. Sometimes it’s just not what they expected," and they leave, she said. The military environment, she says, isn't for every student.

"This is an issue we face every year when we go to receive funding. The Buffalo School Board doesn’t like the fact that we can just send kids back to the public schools."

President-Elect Donald Trump said recently that "If we can put a man on the moon, dig out the Panama Canal and win two world wars, then I have no doubt that we as a nation can provide school choice to every disadvantaged child in America." If Trump tries, he will meet quite a bit of resistance to his plan.

According to controversial Buffalo School Board member Carl Paladino, who is close to Trump, "When we implement real choice with the Trump education plan, the gravy train will end for many. The union monopoly will end. Members will be challenged to compete. Minority [school board] leadership will finally be exposed as phonies, more interested in power and influence than helping the children of Buffalo."

A lot is at stake. One thing is clear: under the Trump administration this debate will intensify, and it will heat up Tuesday when Betsy DeVos takes the hot seat in the Senate.

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