You have to wonder why he – why they – don’t just walk away. They were figuratively beaten up by the Board of Education. They were kept away from the parents they are trying to help, then accused of not trying hard enough to reach them. There were suggestions of racial overtones made by defenders of the status quo.
It’s a tough life, being an education reformer in Buffalo. They’re either gluttons for punishment, or – more likely – committed to a cause.
“We are concerned about education in the city,” said Steve Polowitz, “and have been for years.”
Polowitz is part of the pack of reformers who are trying – against all odds – to transform two of Buffalo’s 28 failing schools into public charter schools. The folks behind the nonprofit push are taking fire from a Board of Ed that has yet to grasp the enormity of its failing-schools crisis. On the other parapet is a teachers union determined to protect its ever-shrinking turf.
If every verbal blow the reformers have taken were a punch, Polowitz would be a walking bruise.
He is 61, a rail-thin attorney with silvery hair and impeccable school-reform credentials. Eleven years ago, he and four others founded Tapestry Charter School. It is arguably the most successful charter in Buffalo. The public charter school, which since expanded through high school, last year got 1,200 applications for 200 spots.
For those keeping a diversity scorecard, about 70 percent of the kids at Tapestry High are minorities. Four of the six trustees for the two proposed restart charters are minorities. If Polowitz, fellow Tapestry co-founder Amy Friedman and others pushing to transform Waterfront Elementary and East High into charters are racist, they do a heck of a job of hiding it.
I have known Polowitz for years. I have no doubt about his charter-pushing motivation: to bring school choice to parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools or to move to the suburbs. Freed of the disconnected administration and innovation-stifling rules that afflict district schools, charters can bring everything from a longer school day to smaller class sizes to inner-city kids.
The charter movement has made for strange bedfellows. Some, like Polowitz and Friedman, are progressives. Others are conservative business types worried about the education of their future workforce.
The spark has grown into a fire. About 8,000 students now attend charter schools in Buffalo, most of them choosing a charter over a traditional public school. District officials have not asked the reformers to state their case to parents at Waterfront and East because they are afraid the parents will like what they hear.
I understand why district officials are bent out of shape about this charter restart push. Polowitz & Co. – after getting nowhere with the School Board – are asking State Ed to use its power to close the two schools and reopen them as charters.
The move outflanks – and disempowers – the School Board and the teachers union, the historic gatekeepers of public education in the city. If State Ed OKs the charter-restart idea next month, it kicks open a new door – here and across the state.
For Polowitz, the possibility is worth the beating. Just as it always has been.