Wonder why New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared earlier this week that there should be some sort of “death penalty” for failure mills and the dysfunctional districts and other operators that run them? Just take a look at the graduation numbers and test score performance for children attending Buffalo, N.Y.’s traditional district. Between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, just 56 percent of the 19,420 freshmen who made up the upstate New York district’s original graduating classes actually garnered their sheepskins, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the New York State Education Department. This meant that 8,626 young men and women — or 45 percent of the district’s freshmen over those seven years — likely dropped out. Only twice in the last seven years did Buffalo have a graduation rate that was greater than 60 percent, the definition by which a district or school is considered a dropout factory, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz, who coined the term as part of his research.
But it gets worse. Even among those children who do graduate, few are ready to take on the kind of coursework that will be expected of them in the traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education. Just 12 percent of Buffalo students in the graduating Class of 2012 earned the Regents diploma, the state’s sheepskin that shows students are ready for college- and career readiness, according to the Education Department. A mere 21 percent of Buffalo high schoolers scored above 85 percent on the Comprehensive English Regent’s exam in 2011-2012, while just five percent scored at the top levels on the Regent’s exam for Algebra 2 and trigonometry, the key courses for higher ed success. The kids who graduate pay the price once they enter higher education. At Erie Community College, the division of the State University of New York which draws 47 percent of its students from the City of Good Neighbors, 41 percent of incoming freshmen took remedial ed courses in 2011.
Buffalo doesn’t do much to prepare its students for success in school and in life. 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. The problems begin even before the kids reach high school. Nine thousand nine hundred sixteen Buffalo students in grades three through eight — or 72 percent of all the kids tested in 2011-2012 — scored at Levels One and Two (Below Basic and Basic) on the Empire State’s reading exams; by the way, those numbers come from the year before the new Common Core-aligned state exams came into place; the results from those exams this year revealed that 89 percent of students in grades three through eight scored at the two lowest levels on the state exams.
Meanwhile there are few choices for Buffalo families. Seventy-two of the traditional district’s schools in 2011-2012 were either struggling with wide achievement gaps or academically failing. This includes Lafayette High School and East High School, whose students were finally given a way out this summer by Education Commissioner John King when he allowed them to attend school programs offered outside the district boundaries by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. There’s also little beyond what the district offers, either in the form of expanded school choice or a Parent Trigger law that allows them to take over and overhaul failing schools in their neighborhoods. Just 16 percent of Buffalo’s school-aged children attend charter schools largely because so few have been authorized in the city. Mothers, fathers, and caregivers are being forced to condemn the futures of the children they love to a district where academic neglect and malpractice is the norm and not the exception. And that’s unacceptable.
But the consequences of the continued existence of the failing Buffalo district and the failure mills it operates isn’t limited to families alone. The Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan region increased the number of jobs by six-tenths of one percent between 2012 and 2013, lower than the statewide gain of 1.1 percent, and the 1.9 percent gain for New York City; even worse, like most of the Empire State, the job growth has come in the form of low-wage jobs that cannot sustain families or help poor families move into the middle class. The 10.3 percent unemployment rate for Buffalo during the first six months of this year is two percentage points higher than that for the entire state and nearly two percentage points higher than that for the Big Apple; this, by the way, doesn’t include those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, many of whom are high school dropouts and those graduates without some higher ed training, a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast. The fact that so many Buffalo children drop out of school, along with the reality that most of those who do graduate lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed for an increasingly knowledge-based economy, puts a strain on the city’s and the state’s long-term economic growth. For taxpayers, both in Buffalo and throughout the state (which provides 74 percent of the district’s funding), there’s no reason to continue sustaining a district with a questionable status as an academic (and even fiscal) going concern.
The inability of the district to even implement a school turnaround plan for Lafayette and East High — or deal honestly with the state on implementing the new teacher evaluation system — is why state Commissioner King has had to spend more time than he would likely want on getting it to execute properly. Traditionalists in Buffalo and throughout the Empire State complaining about King asking Buffalo to do the proper thing by the children in its care should ask instead why does this district continue to exist despite damaging the lives of generations of men and women forced to walked in and out of its school doors. It would be better to shut Buffalo down than to keep propping up a district that is beyond salvation.
But Buffalo isn’t New York State’s only failing district. There’s Rochester, whose decade of academic failure continued into 2011-2012 with 1435 kids in its original Class of 2011 (the latest data available) — or half of the kids in the graduating class — dropping out into the economic and social abyss. There’s also the Albany district, right in the heart of the Empire State’s capital city, where a mere 52 percent of its freshmen in the Class of 2011 graduated while the rest — 368 out of 770 in the class — dropped out. Then there are districts such as Roosevelt Union Free School District on Long Island, which has already been placed under state oversight (via a one-off state law specifically focused on the district) once in the last two decades (and has been financially bailed out by state continuously since the 1970s), and Syracuse (whose abysmal graduation rate of 53 percent is merely the tip of the iceberg of its woeful status), all of which have been allowed to continue condemning children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, to academic abuse.
It is quite easy to understand why Gov. Cuomo called for a death penalty for failing districts and schools. He is right. No one should be concerned about shutting down schools and districts that continually damage the failures of children. Those who express shock and dismay at Cuomo’s statement — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch and Richard Iannuzzi of the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State affiliate –certainly would. They are more-concerned about keeping failure mills in business than about the futures of children who deserve better. And unlike Cuomo, who deserves praise for candor, these folks deserve shame for their defense of failed, immoral policies and practices that keep these districts and schools around beyond their useful lives.
At the very least, these failure districts should be placed under mayoral control similar to what happened 11 years ago when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given full control of the Department of Education. While mayoral control will not always be possible in some cases — the spate of corruption allegations (including accusations of shakedowns by police of tow truck drivers) under the watch of Buffalo Mayor Brian Brown makes the very idea of mayoral control of the district a non-starter — Bloomberg has proven in the last decade that putting districts under the control of a mayor accountable to all citizens can help spur much-needed overhauls of district operations that lead to improvements in student achievement. The Empire State’s legislature has been considering a proposal that would allow the state to either take control of a school or district or put it under mayoral control. But it has stalled in both the Republican-controlled senate and Democrat-controlled assembly because of opposition from districts and the AFT affiliate, New York State United Teachers. It is time for the two leaders in both bodies, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the notorious Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, to act responsibly on behalf of children and finally pass the measure. Teeth should be put into the measure by requiring that failing districts be shut down within eight years if there is no improvement in graduation rates, test score growth, teacher quality, curricula, and number of high-quality choices within districts available to all families.
But the long-term solution lies in moving away from a traditional district model that has been a failure for families even in districts that are doing well — and embracing the Hollywood Model of Education in which education is provided by an array of operators no longer tied to dysfunctional bureaucracies. This starts by allowing for the authorization of more charter schools within Buffalo and other failing districts; the state should be actively involved in this process, both by recruiting high-quality operators such as KIPP and Green Dot to those districts, as well as working with organizations such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options and community groups on launching charters from the grassroots up. Passing a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to expand choice by taking control of the schools in their communities should also be done. Parent Power groups such as Buffalo ReformED have pushed for the passage of such a law for the past couple of years, but have been stymied by AFT and district opposition; Gov. Cuomo should use his bully pulpit to demand that this measure, along with the school takeover law, should pass.
The state should also launch a voucher plan allowing families in Buffalo to send their kids to better-performing private and parochial schools within failing districts. 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 King’s move to allow kids attending Lafayette and East High to transfer out of those schools, state officials have done little to end Zip Code Education policies that perpetuate educational abuse and neglect. Launching vouchers, along with allowing for true inter-district choice along the lines of what has been done in Michigan and Indiana would help kids. [It would also help the Empire State improve its 16th-place ranking on the Center for Education Reform's latest Parent Power index.] Allowing the state’s multi-district cooperatives, along with online and blended learning outfits and even DIY operations by families and communities, to provide classes to all kids, would also help expand the range of high-quality options, especially for poor and minority kids whose parents may not have be able to send their kids to schools outside of neighborhoods.
It is time for New York State to enact a death penalty for failure mills. Our children and their families deserve better than the worst these woeful school operators offer.