Sunday, January 18, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Why Charters Won’t Save the Out-of-Time Schools

It’s hard to find an article in the Buffalo News about the Board of Education when the paper does not laud the new majority as visionary change agents, who are well positioned to institute the bold decisions and actions needed to turn around this “failing” school district.  Former State Education Commissioner, John King, Jr. another prominent member of the chorus, sang the praises of the group he said shared his philosophy of educational reform, of which a major component is the expansion of charter schools – that is “high performing” ones.  The reformers are careful to use this descriptor so that they can differentiate these schools from ones that are not high performing and thus preclude debate or discussion about the merits and performance of charter schools.

The same language was used in the Buffalo Board majority’s “Request for Space” resolution that invited “high-performing charter management organizations and ……operators” to submit proposals to take over Bennett, East or Lafayette High and School #39.  That’s right, the resolution and RFS, sponsored by Board member Larry Quinn, offered independent charters the “level playing field” to facilitate their applications for any or all of the space in these buildings. (The vote for this resolution was 5/4)  Applications, due on January 7th, were received from the Charter School for Applied Technology, Tapestry Charter School, Health Sciences Charter School and ACES, a proposed charter school.  CSAT and Tapestry both applied to take over Bennett High School, Health Sciences wants School #39 and ACES applied to acquire East High.  No applications were received for Lafayette, but then it is the only one of the four schools that was not remodeled by the Joint Schools Construction Project.

Supporters argue that charter schools are public schools.  And, in fact they are primarily funded with public money.  In addition to the tuition the District pays for each child attending a charter school, it also provides transportation, food and other services for charter students.  But charters differ from public schools in that they are governed by private boards, lack transparency by not making full financial disclosure and are not held to all the mandates imposed on the public schools. They have more flexibility and can be selective in the students they enroll. Ultimately, students who don’t make it in the charter can be sent back to the public school district ending the charter’s accountability for that student’s educational outcomes while contributing to the District’s.
Charter schools have a reputation of outperforming public schools, but a closer look at the data reveals that a significant number do not outperform their public school counterparts.  We have local examples in Pinnacle and Community, which the State closed because of low performance.  Further research has shown that charters do not serve groups of special education students or English Language Learners in numbers that reflect the percentage of these populations in the school district.  As for teachers, charter school teachers are not evaluated by the new, controversial standards set for public school teachers.

Now that the charters’ applications are in and are public information, several questions can be answered about what type of agreements these charters want to negotiate with the District.  Tapestry and CSAT want a “no cost” lease for Bennett beginning in September 2015.  Yes, you read it correctly; they want to be given the building.  But it doesn't stop with the building, they also want all assets; the furnishings, technology, books, etc.  They also want the District to assume all or most of the utilities’ costs.  In addition, they are asking the District to assume responsibility for any capital improvements that are deemed “required”.  These two charters offer one scenario of joining forces in a collaboration to share the building.  The Health Sciences Charter’s proposal is similar in requesting the entire School #39 building but is not as specific as the request of the other two charters.  It’s likely, however, that they will follow suit in requesting the building, its contents and operational costs gratis.

And what will these charters offer in return? They've proposed taking over the “empty” buildings.  That is “empty” of its most precious and vital assets:  the students who currently attend these schools. That means that these students will be displaced.  The charters will not offer them a seat next year. The charters say that they will look to expand some seats, but current Bennett, East or #39 students are not guaranteed a seat.  The charters have their own admissions criteria and process, which the out-of-time schools students would have to follow.  My concern, my questions and those of the community should be focused on:  What about the students?  Aren't they entitled to their buildings and assets?  How are our students going to benefit from losing their schools to these charters?   Secondarily, how will all of our students be impacted by the additional costs that these arrangements will add to a budget that is already stressed?

Will charters save the out-of-time schools?  Not likely, at least not in a way that will help the students who are in those schools today.  And it’s not likely that they’ll save any of the students any time soon if they get these school buildings.  The students in the out-of-time schools will have to go elsewhere to continue their education and vital resources will be lost to other students in the district. In the justification to their own stakeholders some charter school leaders have even admitted that this expansion is only to benefit their student body and to save money in their own budgets.  Remember that these are budgets that are already funded with public dollars.   There’s a question of equity in this situation and if approved it begins the implementation of one board member’s vision:  the “disassembling” of the Buffalo Public Schools.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: The Charters Schools to the Rescue – Or Not!

I have been writing this column since the election of the new Board Majority majority and if you've been following it, you've seen the unfolding of a carefully orchestrated plan to push forward that group’s agenda, including “dis-assembling” the District and turning over our school buildings to charter schools.  But the truth of the matter is that the Board’s majority aren't the only ones who have an agenda when it comes to the Buffalo Public School District, its assets and its resources.
At the end of last year, Chancellor Merryl Tisch of the NYS Board of Regents wrote a letter to the Governor about educational problems in the State.  She opined as to how State Ed had done “everything humanly possible against a lot of odds” to help Districts such as Buffalo.  She specifically cited reasons why Buffalo is a prime example of a District needing drastic intervention and called on the Governor and the Legislature to craft legislation to allow the State to take over “failing” Districts.  As Buffalo has come  into the spotlight, or should I say cross-hairs, of so-called “reformers” who seek the take-over, take-down and/or turn-over of our District, the chorus of “dis-assemblers” is getting louder and adding more influential voices.
Enter the New York Times Editorial staff.  Never mind that New York State, mind you, the State’s school system, has been identified as “the most segregated in the nation”.  The Times( 1/10/2015) linked that report to Dr. Tisch’s letter  noting that “minority children are disproportionately trapped in schools that lack the teaching talent, course offerings and resources needed to prepare them for college and success in the new economy.”   Buffalo again rose to the top as a district most urgently in need of a fix, in part due to the current Civil Rights complaint.  Furthermore, the editorial writer pointed to the history of better days when Buffalo was a model leader in the school desegregation movement.
Touching briefly on changes that negatively impacted this model program, the article ended predictably by enumerating some stereotypic accusations for Buffalo’s problems:  the “teacher’s contract”, the district’s “inept leadership”, failure to submit “acceptable, legally required plans” to the State.  But they threw in a new problem, thanks to the Buffalo News; “troubling questions about the accounting for funds…for rebuilding…crumbling schools.”  No questions were posed about the accountability of the State Education Department; for imposing unfunded mandates, for a disastrous roll-out of the un-validated Common CORE, for the expanded reliance on standardized tests as the primary measure of student proficiency and thus school failure.  Funny thing, there was also no mention of the problem of segregated neighborhoods in our urban and suburban communities, for example, that just might contribute to the schools’ segregation problem.  But I guess that’s for another editorial.

I know I've taken what seems to be a detour from the subject of this article.  But there is a connection between the recent escalation of attacks on our District and the move to bring in charter schools to take over our school buildings.  The case is being made for charter schools as the remedy for our “failing” schools.   Last week, three area charter schools submitted requests to take over Bennett High School and School #39 (out- of- time schools).  East High is the target of a proposed charter that has yet to be approved by the State.  As the Board begins deliberations on the plans for the out-of-time schools, listen for the promotion of these charter schools:  Tapestry, Charter School for Applied Technology and the Health Sciences Charter.   

Like everything else, language plays an important role in the campaign to privatize public education.  The designation of “high performing” will specifically be used to describe these schools.  This descriptor serves to differentiate these charters from other charters as the reality is that many charters are no higher performing than their counterparts in the public sector.  What will these charters provide to the students, who are currently attending the out- of- time schools?  That should be a critical question.  Keep in mind, however, that their requests are for the buildings and contents, not to serve the current students.  Make a special note that there was no request to take over Lafayette, the only school of the four that was not renovated as part of the Joint Schools Construction Project.

More about the charter school requests in the next article.

Friday, January 2, 2015

What's Next? A School "Czar" for Buffalo.

Buffalo, New York is becoming, or perhaps has already become, the epicenter of the fight against privatization of public education in the State.  The most recent assault on the school district is being led by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and Acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin, who have targeted Buffalo as a prime example of the State’s struggling school districts, even though Rochester and Syracuse have educational outcomes that are historically lower than Buffalo’s.

One has to ask the question, then; Why Buffalo?   Over the last few years, during Commissioner King’s tenure, Buffalo has been singled out for one mandate after the other, continued criticism and the imposition of a Distinguished Educator.  However, the recent addition of pro-charter Board members, one in particular wealthy developer Carl Paladino, who has stated his intention to “disassemble” the District, seems to have given impetus to SED’s focus on the Buffalo schools.  In a New Year’s Day letter, Chancellor Tisch called on Governor Cuomo to propose legislation that would give the State the power to remove and replace school boards in troubled districts and/or to appoint a “school Czar”.  No doubt, Buffalo is seen as a model contender for this distinction.

To no one’s surprise, Board President James Sampson responded to this proposal by noting that he believed it would be his obligation and responsibility to step aside if such a law were passed.  Carl Paladino, with visible glee, responded that he’d be happy to step down, but only if the appointment of the school “czar” was a-political.  Fat chance for that happening.

Although Rochester and Syracuse don’t appear to be in the Regent’s cross hairs at this point, if Buffalo is allowed to fall, can they be far behind?  Now is the time to call on our legislators, state, county and city to oppose this blatant assault on public education.  In the end, for those of us who support public education, this is about the children.  We can’t allow “reformers”/privateers to gut the system of its resources depriving the most vulnerable children and disenfranchising our communities.