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Are charter schools good for students?

An educator with an impressive resume appeared before the Sullivan County legislators on May 10 and asked for their support for her proposal to open a charter school in or near Monticello, which might also serve students from the Fallsburg School District. She said the area has changed, and the data about students in the area shows that they are not achieving the levels of success that they should.

Educator Tara-Denise Murray said her school would be named the Excelsius Prep Innovative Charter School and would have a rigorous and disciplined curriculum. The students would initially range from Kindergarten through second grade, and a post on the website says, “Our scholars don’t sit and learn, they actively engage and learn. Our curriculum has a high success rate of achievement used by numerous charter schools across New York.”

It’s easy to imagine that the 100-plus students who attend the school will benefit from attending the charter school, but what about the thousands of students who will continue to go to public school? Charter schools are funded in large part by shifting revenue from public schools to charters. And it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game.

In a 2014 study by the Association for Education Finance and Policy, authors Robert Bifulco and Randall Reback argue that, according to their survey of charter schools in Albany and Buffalo, charter schools have had fiscal impacts on the public schools in those cities. They wrote “Charter schools might cause more personnel resources to be used to educate a given number of students. In our case studies of Buffalo and Albany, district officials indicated that it is difficult to reduce the number of teachers when enrollment losses are spread across a large number of schools and grades. For instance, if five students are the most any particular grade in a school loses to charter schools, if might not be possible reduce the number of classroom teachers in the district. In this case, the additional teachers hired by charter schools would not be offset by reductions in the number of district teachers.”

In fact, the authors write, charters were always intended to take resources away from public schools. “In the ideal narrative of charter advocates, ‘money follows the child.’ Thus, when children move from public schools to charter schools, the traditional public schools lose money that then goes to the charter schools. Accordingly, in this ideal narrative, charter schools do in fact take money away from traditional public schools. A separate question is whether this harms public schools.” The authors say it does.

Another paper, this one published by the Brookings Institute in April, ( has similar findings. The authors write, “Although such burdens may manifest themselves in higher local tax burdens, the more likely outcome is reduced spending per pupil on educational services—and hence lower educational quality—for students who remain in the district’s traditional public schools.”

Another area of concern is one of accountability. Public schools are run by school boards whose members are elected by the public. And while charter schools operate in large part with public dollars, the public does not have a say in choosing who will run the schools. Further, charter schools don’t have to operate with the same kind of accountability as public schools under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) in New York.

That’s because of the structure of many charter schools in New York. The officials who run the schools don’t work for a school district or a municipal agency, which are required to produce many types of documents in response to a FOIL request. Instead, charter school officials are often employed by non-profit charter management organizations, which are not covered by FOIL.

But are charter schools effective? It’s not clear, and apparently depends on the context. For instance, several studies (National Bureau of Economic Research, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Center for Research on Education Outcomes) suggest that charter schools tend to make a difference in student performance mainly in major urban settings—scarcely a description of our area—and may even do worse than public schools in other types of settings.

This is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the important questions that must be asked regarding the benefits of charter schools, and the county legislature should thoroughly explore them before making a decision about backing the one proposed for the Monticello School District.


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