Charters are Not the Solution for Buffalo Education

Written by Derek King, Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

Last week on an overcast Wednesday morning, a small rally was held outside Lafayette High School to protest the Buffalo School Board’s decision to phase out the school and convert it into a Charter.

The Essenwein & Johnson designed school looms over Lafayette Avenue, one of the most impressive buildings on the West Side, anchoring not just the street around it, but the community as well. The architects’ style for the school, French Renaissance Revival, is fitting consider the West Side is going through a rebirth of its own.

One of Buffalo’s most rapidly revitalizing areas, the West Side was stabilizing by a industrious refugee community, opening stores, occupying formerly vacant houses and giving life to empty streets, with many of the children of these families attend Lafayette High School. With 45 languages spoken, it’s one of the most diverse schools in New York State.

That diversity comes with challenges, however, and the state’s testing demands are proving too much for most of the students, many of them who need to master english before they can even grapple with the subjects the test cover; indeed, some of the schools students have never had a formal education before in their lives. As a result, only 25% of Lafayette High School students graduate on time, and only 40% graduate within 6 years.

Some schools in New York State have figured out how to address this issue, notably the International High School in Brooklyn, NY, which has a 66% graduation rate, which bumps to 80% for those who graduate within six years. As that Buffalo News article points out however, they are two very different situations. While the Brooklyn school has had years to develop that resume,

“Lafayette still struggles to find its footing after a five-year influx of refugee children. Many teachers lack the training or confidence to assist these students, yet the district keeps sending more immigrant students their way. The district does not have a strong recruitment plan for teachers experienced with this population. The school juggles a number of different programs rather than committing to one proven model for educating immigrant children who speak another language. And one approach it uses – grouping its weakest students together and inundating them with adult teachers and translators – comes at a big cost.”

Given time, money, and a strong direction by administrators in the school and in the district, Lafayette High School could someday be an example for other schools to follow, and like Brooklyn’s International High, actually help prepare these newcomers for life in the United States.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like time, or money are available, and while there is a strong direction, it’s in the opposite direction.

Charter Schools in Buffalo

That strong direction comes in the form of former Gubernatorial Candidate Carl Paladino, who joined the Buffalo School Board last year. Since then, he’s made it his mission to fix Buffalo’s Public Schools, opting for a “break it down and build it back up” methodology. After successfully removing Superintendent Pamela Brown from office, he’s set his sights on addressing the epidemic of failing schools in the district, starting with two of the biggest offenders, Lafayette and East High Schools.

Rather than retooling the schools to better service the community, he’s following the same strategy as he employed with the former superintendent; get rid of the problem and start over. Lafayette and East High Schools will be phased out, and replaced with Charter Schools.

Currently, there are fourteen Charter School in Buffalo, with another opening next year, and the Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna. Eleven have been open at least ten years, with four going back all the way to at least 2000, and only two of the schools opened in the last five. Many of the Charter Schools have experienced a lot of success: the Charter School for Applied Technologies graduated 101 of its 105 students last year, and Tapestry Charter School has had remarkable success preparing their students. Furthermore, these schools have had success despite being comprised of almost entirely impoverished minority students, often the biggest claim of defense for failing schools.

The push for more charters comes from more than just Carl Paladino, however, as five families in Buffalo and Rochester filed a lawsuit against the New York State Education Department to give fair funding to charter schools. Additionally, the advocates extend beyond those whose children who are in school, to those with deeply held ideological views about the role of government, as charters have seen as a solution to Buffalo’s bloated, entrenched, and inept education bureaucracy. For some, charter schools are the latest battleground to strip down budgets and privatize public services.

But when it comes to the education of our children, are charters the best option? Are the children really the beneficiaries of these policies, and if not, who is?

Charters Around the Country

For most cities, this debate already occurred 10 years ago, and public schools lost. The first legislation allowing charter schools passed in Minnesota in 1991, and today, 42 States and D.C. allow charters to receive public funding. The charter model, which allows schools to form with greater autonomy to create more individualized curricula, that once approved, only have to be reviewed every 3-5 years to ensure they are meeting standards. For many cities across the country, this was a simple solution to their failing schools, and from 2000 to 2012, the percentage of public schools that were charters increased from 1.7 to 5.8 percent of all schools in the country, with the total students attending increasing from around 300,000 to 2.1 million.

There have certainly been some great success stories in some districts, including Buffalo, associated with their Charters, but for many, the opposite is true. The lack of oversight has allowed fraud to run rampant among charter schools, to the tune of $136 million in only 15 states covered by a recent study. This was the case in Los Angeles, which features the district with most charter schools in the country, where schools have misappropriated funds, extorted families, and even in one bizarre case, forced an employee to marry an administrator’s sibling for them to gain citizenship (on top of funneling $2.6 million in funds to said administrator’s family).

Interestingly, as charter advocates claim that privatizing these schools will save districts money, when charters fail, taxpayers are still left paying for their failure. Last year in Ohio, over 29% of charters in their system failed, leaving nearly $29.5 in unrecovered public funding, and $187 million over the last 10 years. Ohio will spend $888 million this year on charters, resulting in a loss of 25% of funding for public schools, despite the fact that only 10% of their charters have been successful, and over $1.4 billion was spent from 2005-2013 on schools that never got higher than a “D” approval from the state.

The question of performance is key, as many proponents argue that stripped of Teachers Unions and curriculum requirements, charters do better than their public counterparts. Though Buffalo has experienced this with its small charter pool, in Chicago, where student enrollment in charters has ballooned from 8,600 to over 48,000, the schools are performing worse than the overall public school system including magnet and gifted schools.

In places like New Orleans, which experienced a complete overhaul that replaced all of their public schools with charters, the results have been cataclysmic. Though early successes were lauded as signs of the program’s success, last year 79% of New Orlean’s public schools were given D’s or F’s by the Lousiana Department of Education. The district went from having primarily middle-aged African American teachers, who, being unionized, were promptly fired after Katrina and the takeover, to having largely young, white, and non-local instructors. In 2011, over 42% of the teachers had less than three years of experience, and 400 of the districts teachers had certifications through Teach for America in 2013.

How did this experiment with charter schools gain so much momentum? The above examples don’t include the numerous reports of militaristic discipline and excessive expulsion, one of which raises serious questions about safety, and the other which pushes troubled students back onto the already burdened public schools.

An Experiment for the Poor, by the Rich

By now, most people in the United States are familiar with the memes generated from the Occupy Movement, and are either just realizing the scope of the situation, or are exhausted by diatribes against the “1%.” Regardless, as much as the debate is shaped by concerns for students, frustration with inept or struggling school districts, or simply small-government ideologies, the discussion began in earnest once wealthy individuals began looking at education as a source of revenue.

The political watchdog site Politco recently ran an expose on the issue. The title, “The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining are schools,” is certainly designed to incite both curiosity and controversy. Interestingly, the article isn’t just about charters, but about the previous fad in improving bad schools; the “small schools” initiative championed by Bill Gates. The goals were just as altruistic as for the Charter Movement, attempting to fix failing schools by shrinking them, in some cases, simply breaking up an existing school into four smaller schools that shared the same building. The program disrupted 8 percent of the nation’s public schools between 2000 and 2009, ballooning administrative costs, and hurting school extracurricular activities and electives. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had pumped $2 billion into the program, declared it a failure, and moved on, even though the students and districts they affected could not do so as easily.

The article, written by Bob Herbert, goes on to explore other aspects of the emerging privatized education movement. Part of the movement, Herbert explains, is tapping into the hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars tied to education. He provides an anecdote about investors in New York City salivating about the opportunity to sell lesson plans, software, and student assessments to schools struggling to meet new standards. He talks about Pearson pouncing on No Child Left Behind to produce an entire industry around testing materials, even signing a half-billion dollar contract with the state of Texas.

Near the end of the article, Herbert intones the following:

 “[These] are just a few vivid examples of the dangers inherent in a school reform movement driven by millionaires and billionaires with no real knowledge or understanding of public education. I could go on—the Walton Family Foundation, for example, has pushed a privatization agenda that would siphon money from public schools by funneling tax dollars, in the form of vouchers and other initiatives, to families that want to send their children elsewhere. And the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has established training programs to groom non-traditional types—business executives, military officers, lawyers—for appointments as public school superintendents or to other high-level managerial positions, where they put the foundation’s free-market and privatization policies into practice. One Broad graduate, Jean-Claude Brizard, took over the Chicago school system under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where he continued the reformist policies of his predecessors—firing teachers and shutting down schools—with no appreciable gains in academic performance.”

Using this article as a lens to examine the current charter school debate in Buffalo, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the two biggest proponents (in the city, and now on the School Board) are millionaires Larry Quinn and Carl Paladino. Quinn, though known for his role as president, CEO, and part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres at various stints throughout the 90s and 2000s, is a real estate developer by trade, and served as Vice Chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. Paladino is a former Gubernatorial Candidate, but is also one of the most well-known real estate developers in Buffalo; his Ellicott Development Company has earned him enough to spend over $10 million on his 2010 race for the governorship. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Paladino and Quinn were educated at private high schools (Bishop Timon and Canisius, respectively), and Quinn reported to the Buffalo news that he sent his children to Nichols School when they were receiving their education.

Though both have strong ties to Buffalo, and their passion for improving the city should not be doubted, the city should be hesitant to blindly follow their suggestions to disband failing schools and create more charters, particularly when faced with the innumerable examples nationwide that this plan simply does not work. When faced with the fact that Paladino owns six buildings that are currently rented to charter schools, this policy should definitely be more scrutinized.

The entire situation is troubling: one of the most influential members of our school board, currently owns six buildings rented by charters, and is advocating for more schools to be disbanded and replaced with charters, likely increasing demand for more spaces to lease. Rumors speculate that Paladino recently won the bid for PS 56, located in the heart of the Elmwood Village, which was put up for sale by the district itself. If those two facts alone don’t raise red flags, his defense of renting to charters should. He claims that a return of investment of 10% is low, yet working in development myself, that’s higher than most projects I consult on, and indeed is 10% on top of the development cost, which from experience includes developers fees, legal fees, and construction costs, all of which would have gone back to various Paladino owned interests. In addition, it fails to take into account the fact that regardless of whether the school is successful or not, he will still own the buildings they are renting, which could easily be converted to other uses. Regardless of Paladino’s motives for joining the school board, there is a clear conflict of interest concerning any push toward Charter Schools, just from the simple fact of his line of business.

For a Brighter Future, Look to the Past

Based on all of the above, the outlook for Buffalo schools seems just as gloomy as the overcast skies above Lafayette High School last Wednesday. On one hand, the schools are performing at unacceptable levels; on the other, wealthy individuals are pushing us toward another system, that on a whole, has not been much more successful, and will benefit the private interests of the most vocal supporters (and decision makers). Herbert phrases the second dilemma as the following:

“Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children? And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often such toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”

The most frustrating problem is that there is no simple solution. Charter schools perform best when they are used similar to magnet schools, and the biggest problems seem to arise when the system is diluted with too many of these pseudo-public institutions. As US Today recently reported, the best systems have capped and heavily monitored their charters, while also collaborating with them like they are part of the public system, something that shouldn’t be too far-fetched to understand considering they are actually publically funded.

Additionally, current standards are based entirely on preparing students for a college education, which while admirable, is such a lofty goal that is incongruent with realities in cities like Buffalo, as well as for much of the country. For many students in the city, the goal is simply to learn English and American culture, all the while experiencing a true education for the first time in their lives. For a lot of young folks in Buffalo, as well as kids in my hometown in New Hampshire, an education that prepared them for careers in skilled trades would have been much more appropriate than attending college. An education that prepares all students for life is just as important as preparing some for college, or competing on an international stage for education aptitude.

In 1910, Buffalo had one of the largest networks of night-school English classes for immigrants, giving Polish, German, Italian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European new arrivals the tools they would need to thrive in their new city. There was an implicit understanding that the success of the city relied on an educated working class capable of working in factories, running shops and stores, and socializing in the city. By focusing on trying to get every student into college, we’re failing those who would thrive on other paths, and wasting the time of their college-bound classmates who would do better in a magnet school or gifted-program.

There are many problems with the Buffalo School System. It is bloated, with redundancies, overpaid administrators, and it does lack of comprehensive planning, waste resources, and has a complete and total vacuum where strong and competent leadership should be.

The option put forward by Carl Paladino and Larry Quinn does not fix those issues. Instead, closing schools and replacing them with charters circumvents the real issues and just creates problems for the district in the long term if those schools close or underperform. Worse, even if the system continues to deteriorate, it will be at the benefit of those who are currently making these decisions.

The Buffalo Public School system is on the right path; Say YES has already produced a bump in graduation rates, helping college-bound seniors with the other half of being prepared for a college education— paying for it. Lafayette High School is filled with passionate teachers and programs designed to help alleviate the problems that plague the school, the school just needs more time for those things to work.

Lafayette High School is already the anchor of the international community on the West Side. If the problems there are handled correctly, the renaissance won’t just be in its architectural style, or even along Grant Street. If Buffalo can figure out real, lasting solutions to its broken education system, then the city will experience a rebirth throughout. Not just the rebirth spurred by top-down investments like Canalside or downtown, but the type of renaissance that can only be achieved when all people are given the tools they need to live successful, happy, productive lives.

Buffalo doesn’t need to follow another new fad espoused by wealthy individuals to be successful, it just needs to prepare its new generation of immigrant students for a life in the city; to do that, the City simply needs to look at other successful examples around the country today, and more importantly, to what it was doing successfully a century ago.

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