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Go from bad to better
State, city educators arguing over rates should focus on road, not the potholes

With all the problems facing Buffalo Public Schools the last thing anyone needs is the equivalent of a schoolyard brawl, but that's exactly what appears to be happening in a disagreement between state education officials and the superintendent.

The situation boils down to whether the urban district's graduation rate, dismal by all accounts, amounts to a flat or minimal degree of change, or to a significant step in the right direction.

Buffalo's four-year graduation rate started at 52 percent in 2005, dropped to 45.1 percent in 2007 and increased to 53.1 percent last year. State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner sees the glass as half empty, calling a 1.3 percent point increase from 2008 to last year "modest."

Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams disagrees, vehemently, holding up the state's own data showing a 12.2 percentage point increase in the graduation rate over the last four years, to 57.3 percent from 45.1 percent. The figures included students graduated after four years, or graduated after summer school following their fourth year of high school.

Further, he wanted to know why Buffalo school officials received four phone calls in less than a week from state Education Department officials he said were scrambling to finalize last year's graduation rate. State officials said they were simply asking for information and they're poised to be helpful to low-performing schools, but not with the same strategy for a district that has received significant funding with a declining enrollment.

Steiner sees Buffalo's high school graduation rate as stagnant or, more specifically, sees a graduation rate that ". . . has not changed significantly over the past four years." Williams took that as a push for charter schools and privatization of public education, even going so far as to cite the state's application for "Race to the Top" federal funds -- although he made the correct decision in backing that effort and, along with School Board President Ralph Hernandez, signing on to the state application.

Williams contends that the district is meeting state standards and, as they improve, should stay the course rather than change in midstream. Reaching a high level, he says, requires good teaching and not changing what is being done. Those are the words not coming out of Albany or Washington, D.C., the superintendent contends, adding that instead you hear the words "tear it down."

Williams notes a multimillion-dollar school deficit driven by structural problems such as the cost of health care, the pension plan and daily operations. "Race to the Top" funds would be targeted to seven low-performing schools, but there are 48 other schools in the system and he has to adjust his expenditures. The system, Williams said, is broken and state officials are trying to fix it by throwing money at the problem with charter and turnaround schools.

Williams said he's just disagreeing with philosophy; state officials might say the same. But any disagreement about the actual graduation rate here cannot obscure an agreed-upon assessment: dismal. Focus this discussion not on where that number is now, but on how to get to where it should be.

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