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COMMENTARY

Educational equity? Not a talking point in Erie County

Rod Watson

Mention "Boston" and "school desegregation" and the first image that likely comes to mind is of angry whites protesting plans to bus black students to "their" schools in response to a 1974 court order.

But nearly a decade before that, black parents had formed coalitions with suburban Boston schools to start Operation Exodus, a voluntary effort that raised money to send black students to white schools that had room. That effort became more formalized in 1966 when Massachusetts began its Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, a voluntary racial-balancing effort that funded transfers of students of color from Boston and Springfield to schools in surrounding suburbs.

An analysis released earlier this year – and explained in a forum here last week – called the small program’s impact "limited but encouraging," with black and Hispanic participants outperforming their peers left behind and even graduating at higher rates in 2014 than the overall rate in their new suburban districts.

But while Boston, that citadel of racial animosity, celebrates more than a half century of giving students of color access to suburban schools for the betterment of both, Western New York – with its yawning city/suburban divide in both demographics and achievement – can’t even broach the subject. Not only do school officials here not want to talk about it, they don’t even want to hear about it.

That was clear from their near unanimous absence last week when two experts on desegregation and school funding came to Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center to share tips from other regions that have successfully navigated this cultural and political minefield.

"Sharing the Wealth: How Regional Finance and Desegregation Plans Can Enhance Educational Equity" took its name from a Learning Policy Institute research brief that looked at cross-district integration programs in Boston/Springfield; Hartford, Conn.; and Omaha, Neb.

In the forum sponsored by Canisius’ Center for Urban Education and the National Urban Alliance, two of the study’s three authors described the educational gains that can occur when school attendance and funding are not "confined to individual school districts but were thought of as crossing and uniting districts in a region."

In Boston and Springfield, about 3,300 students are being bused to 42 surrounding districts, which get an extra $5,000 per child. In addition to the academic gains for the students of color – who made up less than 2.5% of the enrollment in the suburban schools – the study found no "peer effects" on the white students from having new classmates. (Translation: The white kids didn’t suddenly get "shiftless" and "lazy" or start carrying guns.) The program is so popular in Boston and Springfield that there are 10,450 students on the waiting list.

In Omaha, an obscure law empowering the city and school district to expand through annexation provided the leverage for a 2006 plan that implemented regional governance and school funding and a diversity plan with magnet schools and voluntary transfers among 11 districts. The original effort didn’t last long before it was watered down, but limited analyses concluded the transferred students scored "dramatically higher" on state tests than their counterparts left in high-poverty schools.

And in Connecticut, the State Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that de facto segregation between Hartford and its suburbs violated the education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution. That was the impetus for expanding a voluntary, one-way transfer plan – like Boston’s – into a two-way plan that also sent suburban kids into the city, using magnet schools as a draw.

An analysis of the program found its magnet school kids reported "stronger peer support for academic achievement, higher college expectations, and lower likelihood for absences or ‘skipping’ classes." According to the briefing paper, another study found that attending the magnet schools "had positive effects on both the mathematics and reading achievement of central city Hartford students."

John C. Brittain, an attorney in the Hartford case and one of the speakers at Montante, said they tried to export that effort to New York, choosing the Rochester schools in a bid to break up the concentrated poverty and racial isolation that hold so many kids back. However, state courts in the early 2000s rejected the effort, Brittain said, ruling that fiscal issues such as unequal funding – not segregation – were the only basis for bringing suit in New York.

That means voluntary remedies hold the only solution here, said Brittain, law professor at the University of Washington, D.C. He added that educational leaders have to start the conversation before bringing in others, like business people who have a huge stake in an educated workforce.

But where are those educational leaders in Erie County?

The only one to talk about district consolidation has been County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and his push has been to get suburban districts to cooperate to cut costs, not to break down the city-suburban racial and socioeconomic divide that holds the region back.

Canisius hosted the forum in keeping with the Jesuit college’s focus on justice, said Jeff Lindauer, interim assistant vice president for academic affairs. It invited superintendents, school board presidents and administrators from all of the area’s districts. But based on the sign-in sheet, only one – a Buffalo administrator – showed up.

That cold shoulder from the suburbs is reminiscent of what happened in 2013 when Buffalo floated the idea of transferring some students to suburban, charter, parochial or private schools to comply with a federal law mandating that kids in failing schools be given an alternative. Suburban officials came up with all sorts of excuses to douse talk of any such moves.

Buffalo schools then began their turnaround after hiring Superintendent Kriner Cash and there was no need to pursue the transfer option.

Still, the lack of initial suburban interest was telling. Yet Peter W. Cookson Jr., the other co-author at Montante, said the evidence is "very powerful" that integrating schools benefits all students by developing cross-cultural understanding and stronger inter-group relations. His research indicates those benefits extend beyond high school, resulting in more integrated work sites and neighborhoods. And the benefits flow with no academic harm to white students, said Cookson, LPI senior researcher, dismissing as "mythology" the fear that white students might in some way suffer.

City districts also can have much to offer in such a deal, including the expertise that comes with size and the experience of dealing with diverse populations, as well as – in Buffalo’s case – access to schools like City Honors, Olmsted and the Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.

But if the future rides on an increasingly educated workforce, you have to wonder what Erie County’s future holds as it competes with regions that have broken down barriers to educational equity while residents here cling to 29 school districts, still separate and unequal.

Breaking down those barriers starts with talking. In Erie County, though, school officials won’t even come out to listen.

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