Former Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams used to insist that there was enough money in the school district budget to educate its students well. If anyone harbored doubts about whether enough money is available, a new report by the Center for Governmental Research should put that to rest.
According to CGR, Buffalo's per-pupil spending, at $26,903, is the nation's third-highest among large districts. It is also the highest in New York State, higher even than New York City, at No. 4 on the list, and Rochester, at No. 7.
And yet, the district struggles to meet minimum standards. Its graduation rate is only about 50 percent. Student performance is subpar in many areas and 13 schools have been identified by the state as persistently lowest-achieving. And yet, Buffalo spends more per student than all but two other large districts in the country - Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J.
There are some qualifiers to those numbers. Charter school students are not included in the data. If they were, per-pupil spending would drop below $23,000. And some of the Buffalo spending includes debt payment on the city's substantial capital improvement program.
No one denies that financial support is key to a good education. Teachers, principals, buildings, training, upkeep and more all cost money. There is going to be a significant expense.
And location matters. Costs are generally higher in New York and even more so in New York City. It is not surprising, given the policies that come out of Albany, that costs would be somewhat higher in New York than in Texas or North Carolina.
But when we are spending so much per student and results are still appalling, something is amiss. That something is leadership. That is among the conclusions of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, whose mission is "to focus academic research, public education and innovative outreach activities toward eliminating achievement gaps."
A 2009 report that looked at public high schools concluded that, "The main lesson . was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction."
Some of that is happening in Buffalo, and it is possible that under the direction of new Superintendent Pamela C. Brown more will be achieved.
But many other factors hinder that kind of progress, including the wretchedly destructive relationship between the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Too frequently, the BTF is the tail that wags the dog of public education in Buffalo, virtually always to the detriment of student achievement.
That doesn't bode well for producing the kind of leadership that Buffalo students deserve, but it's not impossible, either.
Other school districts have managed to overcome internal problems, including labor distrust, and have gone on to show solid improvement in student achievement.
Buffalo students are entitled to no less, and so are the city and state taxpayers who, year after year, give their dollars to a malfunctioning school district.