Thursday, December 03, 2009

Buffalo School Board & Superintendent Cry "No Mas"!

The Buffalo Board of Education and its Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Williams, last evening did their best imitation of famed boxer Roberto Duran, when he got pounded in his famous 1981 rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard: "No Mas!" when it comes to charter schools.

At Dr. Williams' request, the board voted 6-2 on a resolution to submit a letter to the state Board of Regents requesting that they stop approving more charter schools. That charters improve student academic outcomes and that Buffalo's families want them did not enter the board's thinking.

If only I could have been at this board meeting 290 miles from Albany. The two tanks of gasoline and $23.28 round-trip Thruway tolls (using the e-zpass discount, of course) would have been worth the sheer entertainment value, but for the serious, farcical nature of it all. The next best thing is the Buffalo News account by education reporter, Pete Simon (here).

Where to begin?

Reading the letter itself and the statements of ignorance and confusion from Supt. Williams, Board President Ralph Hernandez and other board members leaves one gasping that this bunch oversees the second largest school district in the state.

Dr. Williams, for example, claims the charter school funding formula is "woefully inept." Say, what? Does he even know that all charter students are in the state school aid formula for Buffalo? Considering the district's budget is 80 percent funded by the state, every Buffalo charter student generates funding over and above what the district spends on charter schools since they get one-third less than the cost of district students. Do the math, Dr. Williams, before making such inane assertions in public. Buffalo has been effectively arbitraging state aid for charter students for nearly a decade.

Then there is Lou Petrucci, who demonstrated the selfish logic of voting against more charters because they get "an unfair competitive edge because of increased flexibility," the News reported. The thought may never have occurred to Mr. Petrucci to instead argue for district schools getting the same flexibility as charters. The easier path for him is to prevent more such schools that are working. His vote also appears out of pure spite since the state rejected his efforts to expand Leonardo Da Vinci High School.

Mr. Hernandez voted for the moratorium because he believes it is his "moral and ethical obligation to the public school system" of Buffalo. This is the same system that is among the lowest academically performing districts in the state, no matter how much money is thrown its way. It's this system that has for years has shown itself incapable of educating most of its students on state standards, or graduating them on time (or at all). So much for that "moral obligation." Charter schools, by contrast, are a means to improve public education in Buffalo, and have done so for thousands of children on less funding.

Nothing about this board discussion reported in the paper included educational excellence or the needs of children, nor what demonstrable actions should be taken to improve education in the city. Instead, Dr. Williams and six of his board members come off as pathetic bean-counters.

Do Buffalo's Anti-charter Efforts Matter?
How will the Regents respond to this moratorium request?

I suspect the Regents will treat this amateurish letter the way they have every other instance when the Buffalo district opposed a new charter school: ignore it. When a quality charter school proposal for Buffalo comes before the Regents or SUNY, they will rigorously examine it and approve it if it meets the law's high bar, just as they've done for a decade. Why? Because both charter authorizers know all too well the abysmal condition of the Buffalo Public Schools and view charters as one means to improve it for students.

Furthermore, the Regents likely will dismiss this Buffalo effort based on the board's own letter, which was full of platitudes and bereft of facts to make even a remote case. It didn't stop there: the letter also insults the Regents by claiming that a recently approved charter school (Health Sciences in Tonawanda) to serve Buffalo students was not "fully vetted" by them. Brilliant.

The attack on charter schools by Buffalo's board and superintendent reveals their desperation to have an answer to the district's perpetual financial problems. This is delusional since stopping charters won't fix the real problem: that is, the district's refusal to reign in lavish operating and legacy costs. Instead, they vote to deny a reform that's worked for its own residents by providing the choice of better schools, especially for families unable to flee to the suburbs or afford private schooling.

Superintendent Williams has come full circle. He can no longer pretend he's a reformer, trying to improve public education for all children. Rather, he's a defender of turf; of a failed "system" against the most promising education reform outside that system. He and a majority of the board of education, together with the BTF, are now two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

It is Buffalo students that lose in this arrangement, which is a shame. But at least we have clarity.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.