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It was over 17 years ago—on January 26, 1994—that the Buffalo Board of Education formally approved a new plan to devolve some of its authority and decision making to individual schools. The Buffalo School District Plan for School-Based Planning and Decision-Making had been drawn up by a committee comprising parents, teachers, district administrators, and others, including two students. Its principal provision was for “site-based” decision-making teams, similar in composition to the district committee. These teams were to have some new, if limited, input in matters of school finance and academic programs. In a white paper on Buffalo’s schools, issued less than two years later, the Buffalo Teachers Federation reported, “What was envisioned…was major decision making at the school level for all stakeholders.”

“Stakeholders” is a word that’s acquired increased importance and usage in discussions about the Buffalo schools since then. On the eve of a much-publicized summit of such stakeholders, convened by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, intended to address the critical failures of the city’s schools, there’s surely an element or rueful irony in the historical continuity. In that 1995 BTF white paper, its unidentified authors regretfully observed that despite the prior year’s hopeful new organizational initiative, “…the [school’s] central office structure remained top down to provide management and supervision.”

This year, new demands for popular participation in the decision-making in the school system have become more insistent. The District Parents Coordinating Council, and its dynamic vice president Samuel Radford III, have been demanding “a seat at the table” when policy decisions are made, something they’ve achieved at Friday’s summit. As school board member-at-large John Licata conceded in an interview this week, “They’ve become a political force,” one the mayor has to treat respectfully, he added.

Radford and the council drew about 400 people to a community meeting on May 3, and more significantly, a large number of the city’s educational and political leaders, who were subjected, one after another, to a nearly relentless interrogation about whether they believed there were “structural problems” causing the failures of Buffalo’s schools and students. The outcome of that event was a foregone conclusion: a vote by the council members present for a half-day public school boycott on May 16 and a solemn, theatrically earnest “agreement” by Brown to convene tomorrow’s conference.

That meeting was first publically proposed by the state’s senior deputy education commissioner, John B. King, during a visit to the city in April. The much-referenced stakeholders, King suggested half seriously, could be locked in a room until they agreed on a turnaround plan to cure the Buffalo schools’ problems. Since then, the meeting’s focus seems to have changed and narrowed somewhat. In a June 2 message to invitees, Brown wrote: “The specific intention of the meeting is for all parties to understand the components in the recently submitted PLA [persistently low achievement] plan.” The mayor was referring to the application the school board sent to Albany last month for approval to receive state-distributed federal funds from the Race to the Top program. The meeting isn’t only somewhat distanced from decision-making; it also has a smell of public relations and more of the old top-down information distribution people like Radford have been complaining about. More fundamentally, the idea that one meeting could lead to a new era of school and community relations always suggested an attempt at political crisis management more than an exploration of educational policies. On a smaller scale, it’s reminiscent of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent backroom message to the warring Erie County Democratic Party factions—one led by Brown, the other by party chairman Leonard Lenihan—to stop their squabbling or face consequences. King’s effort has been less confrontational, but it has seemed to be intended at reducing fractiousness. (King, as it happens, won’t be at Friday’s meeting, having pled a conflicting obligation.)

Over most of the last year, expressions of serious dissatisfaction with, and alienation from, the schools by parents and leaders like Radford have increased. And the system has been beset with internal tensions and conflict, notably between at least some members of the board and Superintendent James Williams, and between Williams, and his administration and the teachers union. Much of that tension has been reduced by two events: the board’s rejection of Williams’ proposed turnaround plan for six of the system’s 13 PLA schools, one that originally called for transferring half the teachers out of those schools—he eventually reduced the affected schools to three—and Williams’ announcement last week that he will retire next year rather than trying to serve out the last three years in his contract. In retrospect, the first event may have contributed to his decision, particularly since it forecast a more active, information-seeking board, a development the information-hoarding, often insular Williams can’t have looked forward to.

Radford and his parents group have consistently complained about not being consulted when these turnaround plans were being considered. “We want a sign-off right like the BTF has,” he told Artvoice last week after a school board meeting at which he wasn’t allowed to speak. State regulations require parent involvement in district programs, but not policy approval. BTF president Philip Rumore pointed out in a recent telephone interview that union approval was necessary only because Williams’ plan to transfer large numbers of teachers violated the system’s contract with the BTF.

Just what kind of participation Radford and his colleagues have in mind isn’t clear yet. They’ve generally confined their goal statements to broad thematic slogans, like the “seat at the table” demand. But he and his council are perceived in some circles as having political ties with Brown’s party faction, and through the Community Action Organization, where Radford works, to Grassroots, the political organization Brown helped start. (At one district council meeting this year, Brown was the featured guest, and when he was asked if he would consider a mayoral takeover of the school administration, he appeared receptive, according to a member who was present.)

These antagonistic political groupings and maneuverings aren’t going to be quelled in one meeting, or one series of meetings. But neither is it likely that the board’s PLA plan—which provides for partnering with organizations from outside the system that will take major responsibility for the six failing schools—will soon effect the turnaround of the Buffalo schools. The problems afflicting them—low graduation and attendance rates, low test and course grades—mirror those in scores of urban districts across the country.

In an essay recently published in the New York Times, prominent New York University research professor Diane Ravitch highlighted the resistance of these problems to Washington and the states’ reform regimens, including the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, from which Buffalo is seeking up to $54 million. In an e-mail response to an Artvoice inquiry, Ravitch paid tribute to the country’s “many dedicated, hardworking teachers…who can work wonderful changes in children’s lives.” But, she cautioned, “…research consistently shows that families, especially family income, have a far deeper impact on academic performance than teachers.” (Ravitch was long considered a political conservative.)

And the top-down, assembly line, test-heavy solutions to these problems imposed by Washington and Albany do little or nothing to relieve the social and economic conditions underlying school failures. Or to permit teachers to use their talents and experiences to devise effective responses. The educational analyst and former teacher Alfie Kohn has written of “…the prescriptions for uniform, specific, rigorous stands…made to order for those whose chief concern is to pump up the American economy” rather than educate youngsters to take active parts in a democratic society.

Sixteen years ago, the teachers union white paper decried the “top-down” management of the school system. If Friday’s meeting begins even a very modest and preliminary counter trend, it will be a small miracle, and a minor but real victory for hope. But observers will be well advised not to let their optimism get away from them.

george sax

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