If you want to get a full sense of how Buffalo Public Schools has continued to condemn the futures of thousands of students in its care — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who cannot simply move into suburbia or use any form of inter-district choice — consider the decade-long performance of Lafayette High School, one of the worst of the district’s operations. Just 38 percent of Lafayette’s freshmen in its original Class of 2011 were promoted to senior year, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education; that is lower than the 57 percent promoting power rate for the school for its Class of 2002. For young black and Latino men in particular, Lafayette has been little more than a way station toward dropping out into poverty and prison; just 31 percent of young black men, and 28 percent of Latino male peers in the original Class of 2011 were promoted to senior year.
So you can understand why New York State Education Commissioner John King moved on Thursday to allow students currently trapped in Lafayette, along with those attending East High — where just 31 percent of its original Class of 2011 were promoted to 12th grade — to attend school programs outside of Buffalo’s district boundaries operated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Ignoring the pleas of Buffalo’s board members, who accused King of unfairly singling out the district, King also ordered Buffalo to hand over control of Lafayette and East either Erie 1 or another of the various cooperatives serving suburban districts outside of Buffalo in order to start turning the two schools around. If Buffalo doesn’t put Lafayette and East High under new management by August 12, King and the state’s Board of Regents could end up shutting down both schools altogether.
It isn’t as if Buffalo hasn’t had a chance to get its act together in overhauling the two high schools. Buffalo had originally agreed to hand day-to-day operations of the two dropout factories to the Talent Development program run by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools, the outfit whose famed researcher, Robert Balfanz, helped shed light on the nation’s dropout crisis and overall education crisis with his pioneering work. But the deal, which along with other turnarounds, would have been funded by $42 million in federal School Improvement Grant dollars doled out by the Empire State, fell apart thanks to the district’s machinations (and that of the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Good Neighbors local) over implementing the state’s new teacher evaluation system. Last year, King had rejected an evaluation agreement struck by Buffalo with the AFT local (and withheld SIG cash) because it didn’t include a component that would have held teachers responsible for their role in student attendance. Buffalo arouse even more ire from King (as well as from families in the district) in May after it was revealed in May that the district’s latest evaluation deal with the union included a side deal restricting use of the new evaluations for hiring and firing decisions, once again violating the letter, intent and spirit of the new system and SIG funding.
The fact that Buffalo continues to behave badly, both in its dealings with the state, and ultimately, in how it provides education to the children forced to attend its schools, should not be shocking at all. During the six-year tenure of former superintendent James Williams, the district did little to overhaul its operations and turn around its failing schools. The number of Buffalo schools that either needed improvement or some sort of corrective action (in short, failing) increased from 35 during Williams’ first year in 2005-2006 t0 to 41 by the time he was effectively forced to retire. Williams himself would eventually spend more time away from the office than in it, traveling 130 days out of one year to conferences as well as to a home he owns in Maryland. Meanwhile the district’s fiscal fecklessness has known few bounds, with its budget increasing by 20 percent between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 — even as its enrollment declined by nine percent in the same period — thanks in part to contracts with the AFT affiliate that allowed for teachers to get nose jobs and other cosmetic surgeries at the expense of families and other taxpayers. [Buffalo spent $7.6 million on such surgeries between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 alone.]
All the while, Buffalo’s bureaucrats and board subject children to the worst American public education offers. Just 15 percent of Buffalo’s seventh- and eighth-grade students were provided Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database. A mere 11 percent of the district’s high school students were provided Advanced Placement courses, while only 18 percent of high schoolers accessed trigonometry, calculus or other forms of college-preparatory math. Yet there are few high-quality options for families to either help their kids escape Buffalo’s failure mills or take over individual schools operated by the district and overhaul them on their own. Just 16 percent of Buffalo’s school-aged children attend charter schools largely because so few have been authorized in the city. Efforts by Parent Power activists such as Buffalo ReformED to convince the Empire State’s legislature to pass a Parent Trigger law allowing them to take over the district’s schools have stymied by AFT and district opposition. Certainly the state could launch a voucher plan allowing families in Buffalo to send their kids to better-performing private schools in the city; earlier this year, the Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability explained how the state Court of Appeals’ ruling in the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity could be leveraged to make such expansion of choice a reality. But until now, state officials — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo — have basically done little to end Zip Code Education policies that perpetuate educational abuse and neglect.
Which makes King’s decision to allow students attending Lafayette and East Side to attend school outside the district an especially important one. In allowing kids at the two schools to escape the district’s failures, King is taking a small yet much-needed step toward ending practices that wrongly restrict families from providing their kids with better educational opportunities. More importantly, King is actually reminding reformers that there is plenty of leverage available for making inter-district choice a reality. Besides the fact that the state provides 74 percent of Buffalo’s school funding (as of 2009-2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling, the existence of multi-district cooperatives such as Erie 1 — which has the capacity through districts it serves to provide kids with academic courses — allows for new possibilities for expanding choice.
What will be interesting to see is if King allows children attending Buffalo’s other failure mills and dropout factories to attend school outside the district. That would be an even bolder step because it would all but put the district out of business — as well as open up the opportunities for similar action across the Empire State. That may be further than what King’s ultimate bosses, Gov. Cuomo and Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch, are willing to go. But King can easily make a strong moral and educational case for expanding inter-district choice. Far too many kids, both in Buffalo and throughout the rest of New York State, are being educationally neglected at the expense of the state’s taxpayers. Children, families, and other taxpayers in New York deserve better.
King deserves praise for this tentative step toward expanding choice. Let’s hope he goes further.