We’ve been reporting a lot over the last year or so about the financial struggles schools are facing in our region, and how they’re trying to improve their situations (in fact, I blogged yesterday on a related issue, touching on the surprising importance of cafeteria revenues.) One of those ways is by merging: In recent weeks, Canton, Potsdam, Huevelton, Morristown and Hermon-DeKalb’s school districts have looked into combining services in various ways; those last three were looking into forming a regional high school, but since the state legislature would have needed to pass a bill allowing it in the 2013 session that ended last week (they didn’t) that idea’s off the table for now.
But the theme in conversations about schools in the North Country has for at least the last while been that there are likely to be fewer schools in the future, not more, or that it’s at least something a lot of people are thinking about (and there’s a lot of pressure coming from the state to merge, by the way). So it was with some surprise that I read in the Watertown Daily Times that at least one group of educators is pushing to launch a new charter school in St. Lawrence County.
The idea, the paper reports, comes out of the annual constructivist conference that takes place every summer at St. Lawrence University. Constructivism, if you’re not familiar, is an educational theory whose adherents stress hands-on problem solving (it’s associated famously with Maria Montessori, among others.) There’s a lot more about this in the linked Wikipedia entry.
Ginger Thomas, from the group that’s exploring the idea, Teacher’s Desk Consultants, says it would meet the Common Core standards that are being implemented in schools across the country. In theory the school would look to enroll 25 students and hiring two teachers for seventh, eighth and ninth grades — with the possibility of expansion if things go well. The state would have to approve the school and allocate funding before it could go forward. There’s more in the article.
When I read this article, my mind immediately went to school funding. As we know, many North Country schools are in serious fiscal trouble, and public charter schools like the ones proposed here do get funding from the state. So I looked it up, and, although this stuff is a little dense, I managed to find the information I was looking for on the web site of the Charter Schools Institute, the SUNY organization that is one of three statewide that authorizes charter schools. Here’s what their Charter Schools FAQ (access that by clicking on that phrase in the linked page above — it’s a Microsoft Word document so I can’t link to it here) says about funding (emphasis mine):
As public schools, charter schools are funded by public tax dollars that pass through the student’s school district of residence on a per student basis. A portion of the per-pupil amount that a school district spends follows a student to the charter school. It is important to note that because not all monies received by a school district are included in the calculation, charter schools receive only between 60-80% of what school districts actually spend on a per-pupil basis. For a list of the amounts that would follow a student from particular districts, please visit the State Education Department’s website at http://stateaid.nysed.gov. For details on how the amount per-pupil, i.e., the “approved operating expense/total aidable pupil units” is determined, please refer to § 2856(1) of the Education Law.
Any additional aid received by the district attributable to students with disabilities would flow to the charter school if the charter school provides, directly or indirectly, the funded special education services (§ 2856(1)). Charter schools may also enter into contracts with school districts to directly provide special education services to its students (N.Y. Laws of 2002, ch. 83, pt. H, §102).
This use of public funding has been a big part of the debate over charter schools, and it seems particularly germane here, where we’re looking at not being able to support the schools we have now, and at school districts that are already, well, teeny. According to newyorkschools.com (which I’m only counting on here for approximates) there are 16,272 k-12 students in St. Lawrence County. With 18 school districts in the county (this according to St. Lawrence BOCES), that makes 904 students, on average, per district.
Even if one supports the educational philosophy under discussion here, is this the best use of our money? Charter schools, as we see above, get only 60 to 80 percent of what a public school would get per pupil. But when you’re as strapped for cash as are many St. Lawrence County districts, that’s not chicken feed.