L. Nathan Hare has a point that is virtually inarguable.
“If you have a problem, and you create medicine to solve a problem, and every year you look at the problem, the problem gets worse, and you keep taking more and more of the medicine, at some point, you’ve got to be bright enough to say that I should stop taking that medicine and find some other medicine.”
Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County, wasn’t talking about medical illness, but a social sickness: discrimination against African-American students that led in 1972 to a mandatory busing program meant to integrate Buffalo schools and, presumably, improve education for those students.
It hasn’t worked. Forty-two years later, schools are just as segregated as ever and education in the Buffalo Public Schools doesn’t work. Thus the proposal supported by Hare, Common Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith and Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council: They want to abandon busing and return to a system of neighborhood schools. That, they believe, would reconnect parents to schools and to their School Board members and make attendance and parental involvement easier. It would “keep kids in the hands of caring adults,” said Radford. They are right.
Significantly, all three men are African-American. They understand why busing was enacted. They have suffered the sting of prejudice and disenfranchisement. But they want solutions, not theories. Busing is, demonstrably, a failed idea, at least in Buffalo. Not only that, but by creating distance between families and their schools, it is making matters worse.
Not everyone agrees with this approach. Prominent among those objecting are African-Americans from the generation that fought for school desegregation, among them George K. Arthur, a former president of Buffalo’s Common Council, and Frank B. Messiah, president of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP.
Both men fear that a return to neighborhood schools would mean what it meant in decades past: fewer resources, less attention, little concern. But it’s also hard to escape the idea that this is personal for them, and why wouldn’t it be? The battle against segregation was important and hard-won. But it was also of its time, and times change.
It should be possible to craft a system that ensures a fair division of resources for all schools and, given the failure of busing to achieve its goals, it is important to look to other solutions. It is important, at least, if the goal isn’t simply to cling to an old and failed remedy, but to prepare Buffalo students, including its large population of African-American children, for prosperous and engaged lives.
This isn’t the only change proposed by Radford and the others. They also suggested the idea of making all schools charters, instantly putting them all in good standing with the state but also making them all accountable for success on pain of closing.
The point of all their suggestions, they said, is to replace a governing structure “that doesn’t govern” – an “inorganic” maze that repeatedly fails.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It’s time not to be insane, to try some different things. Radford, Hare, Smith and their supporters are proposing ideas that can make a difference. They are worth a careful listen.