By Bill Phillips
Education reform efforts in Buffalo are at the most precarious point in years. Frustration recently led Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in painfully blunt language, to call for an end to the failure.
This is a particularly fragile time because Albany is focusing its lasers on government institutions that don’t deliver. Education is top of mind because it not only involves our most precious resource – children – but also the politically potent property tax issue.
But any policy that brings consequences without hope of improvement has a limited shelf life. To turn Buffalo’s schools around, we need to double down on providing something better.
No public provider – district, charter or BOCES – can alone solve the supply problem. We need a healthy mix and an environment from Albany that welcomes them all to the table.
Step one: Start with the money, and don’t pick sides. Rather than fund schools and systems, fund students and fund them equally no matter what type of public school they attend. That way all school operators know they have the security to start new schools and to expand good ones. Equal funding must include the charter school sector.
Step two: Instead of the whole district, the state should take over the worst 10 percent of schools, thus creating a “recovery district” that the state oversees but does not operate. A recovery district would have new leaders who would evaluate each school and its operator, and be free to replace leadership and staff as needed.
They could also create schools from scratch that are no more restricted than charters. This requires abandoning the threats of a complete state takeover.
Step three: Welcome new school proposals from district school leaders, teachers with the talent and experience to create better opportunities. Help the district find ways to steal charter-like freedoms and experiment with contracts that meet rather than limit good ideas. Give district staff the first chance to make new schools, but be willing to replace failure with other providers.
This approach would catalyze the creation of better schools, and at the same time it gives the school district breathing room to fix its middle tier of low performers – those that fall outside of the lowest 10 percent. While this would require a change in the law, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, because variations of this idea already exist in other states.
The commissioner, the Regents and the governor all deserve credit for standing up to opposition to their important reforms. Adult interests are attacking with a campaign that uses desperate families to deflect the responsibility of this educational disaster. Call their bluff. Give them an equal chance to create better schools, but be equally quick to take away their right to repeated failure.
Bill Phillips is president of the Northeast Charter School Network.