Charter Schools, Part 1

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On a local realty brochure Annie Buccieri's first grade class might make a worthy cover photo. It's clean and bright, with furniture to match the classroom's small occupants. Buccieri - the teacher - sits low on a child-size chair, her twenty or so African American charges seated on the carpeted floor. She leads them through the daily spelling lesson, - the kids spelling out simple words and breaking them down phonetically.

Welcome to Citizens Academy - established 1999. This is, according to founder and Director Perry White, exactly what the Ohio legislature had in mind in 1997, when it opened the door for agencies other than local school districts to create and maintain local schools. Citizens Academy is chartered by the state Department of Education and operates completely outside the auspices of the local school district - the Cleveland Public Schools. The arrangement has definite advantages, White says, recalling his founding of the school four years earlier.

Perry White: The philosophy in part had to do with our belief that if you set out to create an organization that was not bureaucratic you could avoid a lot of the barriers that get in the way of addressing the individual needs of students we often see in traditional districts.

White treads lightly around the subject of the Cleveland Schools. After all, city residents and officials take some pride in the district, now on an upswing after years of financial and academic decline. But White clearly feels that, for these children anyway, Citizens Academy's approach to teaching is a better alternative.

Perry White: One of the assumptions that we made in developing the school was that relationships were the key of all learning and that they're basic to motivation and that they're basic to in fact the learning. So we set out to hire a staff and develop a staff who really love children and who really like working with other adults, we really enjoy rolling up our sleeves and problem solving together.

Smaller classes, more individualized attention, a more nurturing atmosphere - these are the qualities that Citizens Academy markets itself on, and what attract parents like Karon Murphy, a single mom living in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. She has three kids at the Academy, two of them former Cleveland public school schools.

Karon Murphy: I was having an issue with my children being in classrooms that are too crowded. That was really my biggest issue. I have a problem with my children being in a room, and there 40 children in a class. So that got me thinking and I started doing a little research and a little footwork about maybe I should make some other decisions.

Murphy applied for Cleveland's school voucher program - another choice option that pays partial tuition for Cleveland students wanting to attend private schools. But a friend referred her to Citizens Academy, she was sufficiently impressed, and, she says, she has no regrets.

Karon Murphy: The teachers, the staff, anything I've ever wanted or needed or asked a question - they're always there to help. And I love being a part of this school.

Citizens Academy, Director White and others are fond of emphasizing, is a public school, since the vast majority of its budget is derived from taxpayer dollars - the same dollars that public school districts across the state depend on to serve the educational needs of children. And every child that attends a charter school draws money away from those districts. That's the major flashpoint between charter school proponents and public school administrators. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the head of the Cleveland district, says charter schools give her a chronic budget headache.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: Projected dollars come out of and from my budget off the top.

This year $33 million that would have gone to the district has been redirected to charter schools, according to a district spokesman - money the district could use to, among other things, reduce its own class sizes. But beyond the loss of money itself, Byrd-Bennett objects the wild card nature of funding charter schools, which she says keeps her scrambling.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: Then we must wait to determine how many of the children are actually going to attend the charter school, how many of the children do we tally off our registers, how many do we provide transportation for?

Those numbers usually don't jibe with the original projections, Byrd-Bennett says, and often much of the money reserved for charter schools isn't ultimately used. Getting it back, she says, isn't easy.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: We must petition the state to return the dollars to us that they have taken off the top to support the community/charter school before we can regain those dollars. That's a rather cumbersome process, I believe it's an unfair process, and secondly, I need the money for my kids this year, instead of having to petition for it for next year.

Competition between traditional public schools and charter schools for state dollars is likely to grow in coming years. New rules passed by the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year make it substantially easier to launch new charter schools. Now the debate over these upstart institutions has shifted - from whether they should exist at all to whether they do any good. Now that some hard data is beginning to accumulate, that debate is heating up. We'll look at why next hour. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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