CHARTER SCHOOLS: Next for New York?

They have a middle school curriculum, by-laws that govern a school, and a projected five-year budget.

But what the parents and teachers of Mid-Hudson Advocates for Charter Schools - a grassroots organization based in Sullivan County which is lobbying for a charter law in New York State - don't have is the authorization to be a school, since the issue of charter schools was left unresolved when the Legislature ended its session last June.

"So many other states have charter legislation," says Deborah Lazarus, a former public school teacher who helped form the group that is also trying to start a middle school program for grades six to eight. "We like to think New York is at the forefront of educational reform, but it's not."

To date, 34 states have passed legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools - publicly funded schools that operate independently of their local districts. According to the Center for Educational Reform, 166,000 students attended 786 charter schools operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia last year. An estimated 420 are expected to open this fall, putting the charter movement at the cutting edge of educational reform.

So what exactly are charter schools and why doesn't New York have them? Legislation regulating charters varies from state to state. The schools are generally theme- based, incorporating a particular specialty or teaching philosophy. In most cases, they are started by parents and teachers. Classes tend to be smaller, and demand for these schools often exceeds supply, leading to long waiting lists. 'Autonomy' and 'accountability' are the buzzwords advocates often use to describe charters - meaning individual schools are empowered at every level of decision-making, from staffing to spending, but are also responsible for producing positive educational outcomes.

Opposition to charters is usually more in practice than in theory, since funding usually comes through the local district, creating the impression that charters siphon money and the best students from public schools. "If only they'd put all that energy and money into existing public schools..." is a familiar lament among teachers and administrators in districts where charter schools exist - a sentiment Ron Davis, spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) echoes. "If we could channel all the energy and resources into improving public schools, we could do so much more," he says. "We seem to be ready to give up on public schools, rather than to do what's necessary to improve them."

Though interest groups like the UFT are often blamed for stalled legislation in New York, Davis points out that the union approved a resolution on charter schools back in 1996. "We don't oppose charter schools," he explains, "as long as we're talking about using certified teachers and providing the same contractual protections in all public schools."

Despite the controversy, advocates cite a ground swell of support in New York. Omar Wasow, co-chair of the NYC-based Coalition for Independent Public Charter Schools, predicts charters will be a key legislative item next year. "There is a growing tide of people who are supporting this bill. Polls show the strongest support is among black and Hispanic parents, who are frustrated by poor schools."

Numerous studies back up this assertion. A 1996 report by the Hudson Institute found among 8,400 students sampled in 34 charter schools, 63 percent were minority group members and 81 percent were previously enrolled in public schools. Comments from families interviewed, however, suggest that these are motivated parents seeking better schools for their kids. Little is said about the unmotivated parents, and the effect charters have on existing schools. "A lot of times, there's a discussion about the kids who are left behind," Wasow points out. "In places where kids can leave for alternatives, it puts pressure on all the schools to improve."

Should the Legislature adopt a charter school law in its next session, the applications from New York City will no doubt be as diverse as the city itself. Websites list preliminary proposals ranging from an academy for entrepreneurs and leaders in the Bronx, to educational centers offering an extended day in Brooklyn.

Deborah Miller chairs the Children's Academy For Achievement (CAFA), an agency whose goal is to open a national network of boarding schools for at-risk kids. Having already opened the first public boarding charter school - the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Academy Charter School, near Trenton, New Jersey - the agency hopes to do the same in New York in 1999. "We're looking for kids with academic potential, who have an ability to succeed, but whose environmental factors prove a detriment to their success," she says. Though CAFA views proposed charter legislation as a financial mechanism for establishing their program in New York, it is not their only option. "We would love the legislation to pass," she says, "but we will conceivably open the school with or without the legislation."

Others, like the parents of Mid-Hudson, are not so fortunate. "Our kids will be too old for the school by the time it's opened," Deborah Lazarus half-jokes, as the group gears up for another year of lobbying. "My daughter, she's not going to benefit, but if someone else's can, that's fine with me."

How Charter Schools Might Work in New York:

Questions and answers based on the proposed legislation: Who can apply for a charter? Eligible applicants for charters include teachers, parents, community residents. Applicants can apply in conjunction with a college, museum, educational institution, a non-profit or even a for-profit organization.

Who would approve a charter application? Applications would be submitted and approved by one of the following chartering entities: Board of Education; Schools Chancellor; Board of Trustees of SUNY or CUNY; Board of Regents; or State Commission on Charter Schools (an agency to be established by charter legislation). Chartering entities would be responsible for overseeing the schools to which they grant charters.

How long would a charter last? Five years. Applications would be renewed for additional five-year periods based on achievement of the charter school's educational objectives and detailed financial statements.

Where would charter schools be located? A charter school may be housed in an existing public school building, private or other public buildings. Legislation calls for the Office of General Services to publish lists of vacant or unused buildings owned by the state that would be suitable for charter schools.

How would admissions work? Any child qualified for admission to a public school is qualified for admission to a charter school. If there are more applications than slots available, students would be selected by lottery.

For additional information/resources on charter schools: New York Charter School Resource Center. (518) 383?. Offers technical assistance to those who want to start charter schools.