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Buffalo schools used as example of ‘failing district’

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo singled out Buffalo Public Schools as an example of “a failing district for many, many years” in his State of the State address, as he laid out a series of aggressive urban education reform measures. Those measures include making it easier for outsiders to take over long-struggling school districts and dismantling local school district authority.

In laying out his reform agenda, the governor reasserted his belief that pouring more dollars into public schools without serious reform is a waste of money.

To prove his point, he showed a chart comparing Buffalo Public Schools funding to the state average.

“The state average per student, $8,000,” he said. “The state average in a high needs district, $12,000. The failing district in Buffalo, which has been a failing district for many, many years, the state spends $16,000 per student. So don’t tell me, ‘If we only had more money, it would change.’ We’ve been putting more money in the system every year for decades and it hasn’t changed.”

In support of recommendations by the state Education Department and the Board of Regents, Cuomo said he will push legislation that will allow a nonprofit takeover group or turnaround expert to assume control over any district that the state considers to be failing for three consecutive years.

He referred to the Massachusetts education reform model in which an appointed school district “receiver” gains supreme authority to fire administrators and staff, ignore union contract agreements and restructure and overhaul schools without school board oversight.

Another possible option, Cuomo said, would be to allow for mayoral takeover of chronically low-achieving school districts, assuming there’s local interest in that option.

Statewide, he said that there are 178 failing schools, 77 of which have been failing for a decade.

“Over the last 10 years, 250,000 children went through those failing schools when New York State government did nothing. Just think about that,” he said. “We should be ashamed of those numbers.”

In Buffalo, some schools have seen significant improvement in recent years, but others have remained consistently low performers despite turnaround plans assisted by millions in federal grant money. The district’s graduation rate has remained at 56 percent over the last two years, with 12 percent to 13 percent of students in grades three through eight considered proficient in English or math. Other urban districts, including Rochester and Syracuse, have struggled with similarly poor results.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Buffalo’s situation and circumstances and track record has captured his attention,” said interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, regarding the governor’s remarks.

That doesn’t mean Cuomo has a particular reform strategy in mind for the Buffalo school district, Ogilvie added. But the governor’s “aggressive” language regarding failing schools is clearly a call to action in light of past, recycled efforts to fix schools that have gone nowhere.

“Everything that is slow and measured seems to have been attempted,” Ogilvie said of district reform efforts. “I think that the governor ... wants to gather the attention of the policy makers in both the region and legislature.”

The fact that Cuomo announced he is willing to increase education funding from $377 million to $1.1 billion if the legislature embraces his education agenda seems designed to do just that, he said.

Ogilvie was also intrigued by Cuomo’s desire to pass legislation that would address longstanding criticism that charter schools accept and keep only high-performing students while under-enrolling higher risk students like those who are poor, or have special education needs or language barriers.

This would have an impact on Buffalo, which is home to 15 charter schools that enroll more than 7,700 students.

Cuomo stated that the new legislation would require charter schools to enroll a higher proportion of such students. The governor also wants children attending under-performing public schools to get preferential treatment in charter school lotteries.

The governor’s budget calls for a modest increase in state spending per-pupil for charter schools overall.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore called Cuomo’s legislation “a step in the right direction,” but objected to both Cuomo’s language regarding struggling schools as well as his focus on the Buffalo school district.

“He’s focused on completely the wrong things,” Rumore said, “and to single out Buffalo is particularly disturbing to me when Buffalo is doing better than all but two of the Big Five.”

Instead of recommending strategies to oust local school district leaders, he said, the governor should consider ways to oust government leaders and members of the Board of Regents who have done little to support better classroom conditions.

Similarly, the state’s public-school advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education called the speech “an agenda of good sound bites and bad education policy.”

In contrast, local parent advocate Samuel Radford III said Cuomo’s reform agenda showed true leadership.

“We have never seen the underlying problems facing education confronted so directly,” stated Radford, president of the Buffalo District-Parent Coordinating Council.

The governor’s urban-focused education reform agenda followed his administration’s request for input from the Board of Regents and state education commissioner, who have oversight over all state public schools. The governor broadly accepted many of the recommendations the board offered in December.

“He knew he was being provocative,” Ogilvie said of Cuomo. “He knew he was being bold, but I got the feeling that every position he took was well considered.”