Is a charter school right for St. Lawrence County?

Photo: Jeremy Russell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Jeremy Russell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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  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 (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.




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31 Comments on “Is a charter school right for St. Lawrence County?”

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  1. JDM says:

    Even if one supports the educational philosophy under discussion here, is this the best use of our money?


    Let each person receive $x-amount per student in their house and take it where they want.

    If the goal is superior education, this will meet that goal.

    If the goal is to employ state workers with ridiculous benefits, continue doing what you are doing.

  2. Nora Flaherty says:

    JDM, you may want to read up a bit on the controversy about charter schools — one of the things about them is they often employ non-union teachers, which proponents say results in huge cost savings, and critics say undermines labor (of course, there have also been criticisms that their CEOs earn too much money, which may be what you’re referring to here). I hate to point to Wikipedia rather than primary sources, but their entry on this topic is really useful:

  3. The Original Larry says:

    And those of us who have no students in the house get what we usually get: nothing, not even the thanks of those whose children we help educate.

  4. Walker says:

    Larry, I have no children either. But let me be the first to thank you for your contribution, however unwilling, to the education of our neighbors and fellow citizens.

  5. Walker says:

    “Let each person receive $x-amount per student in their house and take it where they want.”

    And when some feckless parents spend the money on gambling or drugs or some other worthy cause, what then? When ill-educated parents do a lame job of evaluating the quality of a school, and get duped into sending their children to a school with fabulous marketing and sub-standard teaching, what then? How will society deal with the children of such an educational system?

    Your ideal model is dependent on a thoughtful, educated parent making careful, well-informed decisions for their children. In theory, it’s great. In practice, not so much.

  6. Mervel says:

    In general I am for letting schools be more flexible and free of the constraints of Albany and even free of over reaching teachers unions. However not in this case.

    These programs can work where you have true choice and economic diversity. We have neither in St. Lawrence County.

    As you point out we have barely enough students to support our current schools, well actually we don’t have enough students to support our current schools which is why they are failing. A charter school would simply drain resources from current schools and would not result in large reductions in local taxes.

    Now you could propose to simply make ALL of the schools in St. Lawrence County Charter schools, basically you are getting immediate mandate relief is what it comes down to. But the idea that we have enough resources and students to support both charter and traditional schools is crazy.

  7. Mervel says:

    These city solutions will not work in a poor rural economy.

  8. oa says:

    Larry–What’s your address? I’ll bring my kids over to your house to personally thank you. And give you a pillow, a lemonade and a back rub, too, if you like. And your broader point is right: Kids these days are way too entitled. Wonder where they get that?

  9. Jon says:

    There are already several private schools operating in St. Lawrence County and they too benefit from the existing public school system. I agree with the idea that in a setting where there is adequate choice and the resources to match we should offer alternatives, however most districts here are struggling to provide the basic education mandated from Albany. Many schools have as many support staff as teachers to function as necessary and fulfill all the requirements that the State Education Department sets forth. So, would a charter school help in this case? In my opinion no.

  10. The Original Larry says:

    Public funding for education is a left-over from the days when virtually everyone had children. That’s not the case any more and it’s time we re-evaluated how we go about the business of education. You have children, you pay for them. And don’t give me that “it’s for the good of the community” crap either. In the name of “community” I helped “educate” the meth-head down the road and his 300 lb. wife and now I get to continue to support them and educate their children as well. Neither they nor their parents ever laid out a dime.

  11. Jon says:

    So if I understand you correctly, Original Larry, anyone who doesn’t directly need a public service shouldn’t have to pay for it? So it should be a fee for service pay as you go type operation, where if you need something then you pay for it. Things like roads, fire, police, 911 service, public parks etc. And we should abolish any form of aid for those who are less fortunate because they can’t pay for it. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that you used the phrase “the business of education” because once you begin to think of things like education and other aspects of our society that can benefit everyone as a business then you miss a key point about human compassion and care for our fellow citizens.

  12. The Original Larry says:

    Go ahead, I expect the squeals of outrage for suggesting that education be run like a business and that people who use it should pay for it. By the way, Jon, I was speaking only about education. Of course, running it like a business would put a stop to the wasteful spending on programs that benefit few at the expense of all. And people accuse conservatives of clinging to the past! Education in America is based on a rural, agricultural society in which the vast majority had multi-child families. I guess there’s no prying loose that death grip on the past when there’s money invovlved!

  13. The Original Larry says:

    Jon, you understand exactly what I’m talking about and you’re so terrified that the gravy train is grinding to a halt that you roll out all the tired old arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo. All the phony liberals continue to castigate conservatives for clinging to the past and maintaining outmoded and irrelevant philosophies but when it comes to YOUR vested interests it’s a different story, I guess. You throw out the same discredited talking points and expect the rest of us to continue to fund your utopia without complaint. It’s so great to watch the wheel go ’round!

  14. mervel says:

    Come OL, quality public education, with an emphasis here on quality IS part of a successful free market system, just like civil order through our criminal and civil court system is, just as good roads are.

    Crappy economies and crappy societies have bad roads and bad schools. Now the question is how best to deliver that quality. I don’t agree with much of what our current public system does, particularly here in NYS, however public education itself is now more important than ever.

    Literacy is critical to a functioning democracy a functioning democracy provides the launching pad for a successful free market system. Right now we don’t have enough engineers, scientists and so forth in this country, companies are having to import those skills. We don’t have the skills because we have a basic problem with our public education system, not because we need to have fewer kids going to school. The vast majority of people in this country cannot ever afford private school for their children, we don’t have a choice we have to provide public education even if we don’t have kids we should want that.

  15. The Original Larry says:

    Mervel, that’s all well and good but you’re assuming we are providing quality education and are turning out literate, well trained graduates. We’re not, and the money being spent on education is largely being wasted. We do have a choice about education and I am sick of funding a system that really doesn’t provide quality, so I choose to propose letting people with children deal with their own problems.

  16. mervel says:

    Here is how that would play out. We have no public schools, there would be a couple of private schools that some of us could stretch to afford. People would not move here, businesses would not even consider locating here (a good public school system is one of the things companies look at when deciding where to locate), we would have more poverty, home and property prices would crash, people would be leaving not coming, taxes would actually go up for the people trapped here as you would still have to cover medical care and with more poor that would rise. Crime would go up. Actually what you are proposing is kind of happening in both the worlds of education and health care. What business wants to locate their professional staff in a community with no hospital and no schools?

    It would not be a good thing but we may get to try it out.

  17. The Original Larry says:

    You’ve pretty much summed up the state of the North Country today.

  18. Mervel says:

    We seem to be moving in that direction.

  19. oa says:

    Larry, you really should just move.

  20. The Original Larry says:

    Great suggestion, oa. If a conservative made it (and some have) the screams from the left would be deafening (and they are). But that’s the liberal way: no limits on criticizing all who oppose you, but when the wheel goes around it’s another story all together. The hypocrisy makes me gag.

  21. oa says:

    I have no idea what you just said. But this place really seems to bother you. When things bother me, I leave.

  22. oa says:

    Come to think of it, I’m leaving the InBox for a while. Goodbye, cruel world!

  23. The Original Larry says:

    Now it’s a “a comment-thread throwdown”? What was it when the sarcastic “lazy bastards” comment was made or when you suggested I move? Now you’re “bothered” and you’re bailing out. Poor you! I hate to continually repeat myself but the wheel does seem to be coming around, doesn’t it?

  24. Marlo Stanfield says:

    So kids whose parents don’t care about or can’t afford an education shouldn’t get one? You think people are too ignorant today? Let’s implement your idea Larry and see how much better things are in 20 years when millions of kids who never set foot in a classroom and can’t spell their names come of age.

    When was the last time you were in a school? Of course they have problems, but they all teach the same reading, writing, history and math that schools in this country have for the past 200 years. If some people are ignorant and don’t care to learn that has more to do with the parents and the society than the teachers.

    I’m not that old; I remember school pretty well. I learned from good teachers and bad teachers, because I was interested and I knew my mother expected me to. The kids who didn’t have the same kind of support at home, who didn’t value education, they didn’t learn even from the good teachers. Stop blaming the schools for the ills of society.

  25. Zeke says:

    Hmm LO I don’t like paying to plow roads in the winter. Why should I pay for it I don’t live here in the winter. Guess it is a good thing a lot of people do not see it your way LO.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    The point is, the school industry has failed, to a large extent. Costs are at an all-time high and results are at an all-time low. Yet there are many who think the solution is to throw even more money at the problem. That’s because schools are an industry, involving numerous groups who have a vested interest in increased spending, duplication of services and the continuance of programs and schools that should be closed. Everyone says it’s all about the children but it isn’t. If it was, something effective would have been done already to stem the decline in academic standards and performance. It’s about money and those who’s livelihood depends upon it. If you want to continue to pour money into a failed system, go right ahead, just leave me out of it. If you want to cut the BS and get serious about real education, I’m in. As for the completely irrelevant but oft-cited example of plowing roads in the winter, how long would the highway superintendent in your town last if his budget kept increasing while the miles of road plowed kept decreasing and the ones that were plowed were only half done?

  27. Mervel says:

    Ol, I agree costs are substantially higher than they have to be.

    However I don’t think results are at an all time low. I think results are actually high compared to historical results in the US. Now other countries in the West and the Eastern industrialized world, do better in many ways. However they often are not educating everyone as we do, so there is some biases in how we get compared to Europe and the Far East. But regardless we need to step it up in quality no doubt about it.

    But anyway I am not convinced that the US is at an all time low in our results. We need to do much better however to stay competitive in a very competitive world labor market.

    You are also correct that our education system is a bundle of competing interests, which include the taxpayer, politicians, teachers, administrators, support staff, families and students. But this will always be the case with a public system. You could make a case to simply provide all parents with an amount to purchase their own private education, there is some merit to that argument, it is essentially the voucher argument. My opinion however is that it is essentially an unworkable fantasy, it works on paper but I don’t think it can work in the real world we live in.

  28. The Original Larry says:

    Costs would be considerably lower if some people would stop seeing schools as their own private dining cars on the gravy train. We don’t need schools that have to recruit from abroad to justify their existence. Teachers should know that virtually nobody, with the exception of MLB players, gets free lifetime health insurance anymore (I understand that some teachers are paying part of their health insurance cost already). Taxpayers need to understand that political apathy raises their costs. Parents need to understand that schools don’t releive them of their responsibilities. There’s plenty of room for savings.

  29. mervel says:

    Well yeah, so who is granting those things? Who is negotiating with these guys? You can’t blame them for going after what is best for their workers. The problem is we have a bunch of very weak elected officials who negotiate with their cousins and uncles and sisters and other family members and basically give them what they want, that has to end. You are right the days of lifetime benefits are over, the days of no health insurance contributions are over, that needs to change and if it means a strike or a walk out so be it, lets get real with this stuff. But its not the unions fault that the administrators and school board people just give them whatever they want.

  30. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    School boards and administrators just give them what they want? Really?

    First of all, many teacher contracts are not exclusively negotiated by individual district personnel, including superintendents, business managers, and/or school boards. They’re often times negotiated by legal professionals employed directly through the BOCES region that the district resides in. Partly for cost purposes and partly to avoid conflicts of interests. BOCES employees entire departments of professionals to not only negotiate contracts, but settle contract disputes, consult with districts, etc. on all manner of employee relations.

    Secondly, these negotiations are often contentious, can take years before being settled, and may ultimately go to an outside mediator for settlement. As an example, the Carthage Central district just settled their most recent professional association contract with its teachers after nearly three years without a contract.

    To assume all contract negotiations with teacher unions are simple, short, painless, and sweat heart deals to relatives is not only a gross simplification of the process, but not the reality in most districts.

  31. Mervel says:

    I certainly oversimplified. The results however are what matter. The unions seem to prefer massive layoffs to everyone taking a cut, so be it that is something that younger teachers and professionals need to think about when they support their union.

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