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Editorial: The wrong strategy to increase fairness at City Honors

City Honors School continues to fall short in its admission policies. Where it was previously found to discriminate against minority students, it is now discriminating against those in charter and private schools – and didn’t make sure the public knew about it. It’s time to take a deep breath, step back and do this right.

The Buffalo School District has been under the gun since a group of parents claimed unfair admission policies at the popular and effective criterion school. The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office ordered an investigation and determined the accusation was valid.
Since then, the district has made changes that appear not to have been particularly useful, ignored other valuable recommended fixes and – to the point of the most recent protests – added new stipulations that discriminate in a different way.

The problem is in the way the minority of seats awarded by lottery are decided. The district has decided to give greater weight to students attending traditional public schools and less to those in charter or private schools.

There may, in fact, be some argument for giving first preference to students already in the public school system, but that’s what charter school students are. They are in a different arm of the public school system, but there is no doubt that they are part of the Buffalo School District.

School district officials are unapologetic about the policy, which is hard to see as anything but an outgrowth of the influence the Buffalo Teachers Federation wields on the new union-friendly School Board. That’s true even though just 17 percent of seats are awarded through a lottery system; the remaining 83 percent is based on a student’s cumulative score.

But why impose this discriminatory policy on the others, and in particular, on charter school students? And, just as bad, why do it in a way that fails to ensure that parents are aware of the change in policy? About 450 parents were waiting to hear about applications for their children and were surprised to learn that their chances of success had been compromised. To her credit, Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold acknowledged that the board should have done a better job of informing the public and soliciting its input.

It’s time for the district to rethink its entire approach to the twin problems of a discriminatory admissions policy and insufficient capacity for the number of qualified students applying for spots in City Honors. Two years ago, a civil rights expert hired by the district made the startlingly sensible recommendation of opening a second City Honors school, but the city has done nothing more than think about it. Why?

A new school has obvious advantages: It would serve more students, encouraging more of them to excel. The existing City Honors graduated 98 percent of its students on time in 2016, compared with 64 percent districtwide.

It could also, with care, help to ease concerns about discriminatory admission policies. If the district has a good reason not to open a second school, it should let parents know why. Otherwise, it should start planning for it.

For now, the School Board should abandon the policy that discriminates against students in private schools and, especially, those in charter schools. The former is questionable and the latter is intolerable. That would be true even if the district had made sure parents knew about it, but to implement a wrongheaded policy in secret adds insult to the injury. It’s a violation of trust, and among the School Board’s essential goals must be to build and maintain trust with the people who pay the taxes and send their children to be educated.

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