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School Fantasies

Incomes, outcomes, and impasse

At the Grabiarz elementary and middle school on Lawn Avenue in Buffalo, 95 percent of the 530 kids in grades five through eight were eligible last year for free and reduced-price meals. Half the kids are black, a quarter are white, about a fifth are hispanic, with multi-racial, native Americans, and Asians making up the rest. The white kids do slightly better than the other kids on the statewide standardized tests of performance at grade level on math and English, but we’re talking about the difference between 42 percent and 31 percent performing at grade level.

A few miles away, only 30 percent of the 625 middle-school kids at Amherst Middle School were eligible last year for free and reduced-price meals. White kids do better than visible minorities on the standardized math and English tests, but two things stand out: First, the black kids do remarkably better, with 66 percent or more of them performing at grade level despite their numbers accounting for almost all of the poverty measured in the school; second, the gap in performance by racial group is narrow, with 78 percent of the white kids scoring at grade level, and everybody doing better overall.

The great difference between the relatively diverse Grabiarz building and the Amherst building is that 95 percent of the Grabiarz kids are poor, while only 30 percent of the Amherst kids are poor.

In 2010, a Buffalo State College grad student performed a building-by-building study of outcomes on fourth and eighth grade standardized tests throughout Erie County. Ryan Keem measured class size, disability status, race, household income, and per-pupil expenditure. The strongest correlation, more than twice as strong as race, and seven times stronger than either class size or per-pupil expenditure, was household income.

But nobody in the school-reform discussion wants to talk about this inconvenient true fact, which is that the money that matters most is the money at home.

Cash and conflict

This week, the superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools must weigh the propriety, the legality, and the adequacy of the $500,000 that some rich men here are offering to induce her to leave her job. They are allegedly concerned with the leadership of a system that has, according to published statistics from state education agencies, approximately the same outcomes as the Cleveland, Ohio school district, and the Syracuse and Rochester school districts. At least 80 percent of the students in these big-city school districts are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, which is the surest year-to-year indicator of low household income. Poverty is concentrated where the school-district boundaries are coterminous with the old city that has been depopulated by suburban sprawl, whether that city is Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, or Syracuse. Concentrated poverty yields the same correlations across state boundaries. Test scores track with household income except in those places where concentrations of poverty are broken up. We have known this true fact for a long time. The Western New York study shows this. The research summarized in Gerald Grant’s book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad sShools in Raleigh shows this. The ongoing work of the Century Foundation shows this. Studies published since the mid-1960s all show this.

But that’s not what we talk about. Here, we talk about the superintendent’s management stye. We also talk about “failing schools,” in an emotionalized, politicized, cynical vocabulary that hurts little kids who want to be proud of something in their lives but who are instructed by mass culture messaging that failure and dysfunction are both normative and normal. Various rescue fantasies are ever adduced, and the enemies identified. The rant here focuses on new charter schools, despite the evidence from standardized test scores that the difference in outcomes between public and charter schools is minimal.

There are two new wrinkles to this talk in Buffalo. First, of course, there is a movement for yet another new charter school, with the difference being that this time, it’s being led by a former Buffalo Public School Board member who explicitly rejects the observation that income drives outcomes. Helene Kramer asserts, consistent with the new wave of school reform advocates, that great achievement is within the grasp of children from low-income households if only the teachers are freed from union work-rules and bad administration. Good schools matter, she says, and she’s looking for allies for a new “inquiry-based” elementary school.

The second movement, which is focused on creating a true parent-teacher organization for Buffalo Public Schools families, has been holding big meetings to try to create what is a commonplace in the suburbs: true parental engagement. Led by a teachers’ union organizer named Mike Deely, it’s a long overdue effort to change the discourse of blame that targets the workforce and the children, and that allows the downtown administration to muddle on endlessly adding jobs there while the teacher turnover rate at some Buffalo schools is three to four times the rate of suburban schools.

Breaking bad patterns

It’s too much for Buffalo’s policy elite to contemplate, but the income-polarization issue cannot be overstated. And Buffalo also needs to hear from Diane Ravitch, the former champion of charter schools who now blasts them as cherry-picking failures that have politicized and injured already suffering urban public schools.

The outcomes data validate Ravitch’s criticism. The outcomes of most charters here, and of the Westminster School which has enjoyed enormous philanthropic support, indicate that the longtime pattern of concentrated poverty still correlates robustly with (but of course, we do not say “causes”) lousy student outcomes. There is a happy outlier in the Charter School for Applied Technology, where the parent-engagement has somewhat mitigated the gruesome correlation. Could its profile—low teacher-turnover, resilient administration, and a positive culture, and every kid graduating—be replicated?

Maybe. But first we have to deal with the impasse on display with every Buffalo Public School board meetng. One-time and possibly future gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s critique of the racialized politics of the district’s administration gets quiet nods even from devoted liberals who otherwise disparage him. It is unlikely, however, that Paladino will prevail in his call for a mass resignation of board members. Nor is it likely that a state education department takeover will change much, should it happen at all. The State of New York imposed a fiscal stability authority on the City of Buffalo because it—ike Detroit, like Syracuse, like so many other Rust Belt cities—has insufficient taxable real-property value to generate the revenue required to deliver basic services—yet the population of Buffalo does not rise, its households remain overwhelmingly poor, and decades-old demographic patterns march ever forward. Changing bosses is irrelevant if the boss is not the issue.

Changing the economic fundamentals is a tall order—but changing the mix of kids is not. The mini-surge of immigrants, often adduced as a horrible burden, seems actually to be helping, if not instantaneously. As Eva Hassett of the International Institute patiently explains, using irrefutable data, even the most desperate of the incoming refugees create positive economic and social activity within a generation of arriving. The newcomers, however, arrive in a trickle, not a flood, and the 30,000 poor kids in the Buffalo Public Schools today do not have a generation to wait for a chance to mingle with, engage with, get defined by and in turn help define their youthful peers within this region of 15-minute commutes and a resurgent urban brand. On a map of the urbanized area, the close-in suburban school districts that are all in fiscal trouble, and that like Buffalo are losing school-age population, could logically be encompassed within a bus-ride timetable that could work out smoothly, quickly, the way Raleigh’s has for 40 years.

The tools are there, as taxpayers beautifully rebuilt the Buffalo Public Schools’ buildings with over $1 billion in New York State money. Bizarrely, into those structures today we herd only the shrinking census of the region’s poorest kids. Successful regions mix poor and middle and rich, and have administrators, and private-sector leaders, who shed themselves of multiple-district structures, stand-alone charters, and other rescue fantasies when confronted with 50 years of consistent social science.

While we still have a broad middle class, while we still have parents who want to engage, and while we have impatient agitators, yet will we squander another cohort, another generation, another half-century, if we persist in the fantasy that going it alone, in unsplendid isolation, gets us anywhere but where we already are.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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