By Brian D. Backstrom
The failure of Buffalo and other large urban school districts to significantly improve academic outcomes, coupled with the willingness of the state’s highest court to re-examine New York’s constitutional guarantee of a “sound, basic education,” provides a prime opportunity for a lawsuit seeking court-ordered school choice scholarships.
Rather than the tried-and-failed call to the courts for more state education aid, however, an immediate remedy could be ordered by giving students trapped in failing schools publicly funded scholarships to allow them to transfer to quality private schools.
Since the state’s landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision in 2006 that resulted in the Legislature implementing billions of dollars in new state school aid, Buffalo’s total spending has grown from $691 million to more than $825 million, a 20 percent hike. The district’s per-pupil spending has grown by 25 percent to nearly $20,000.
In spite of similar trends throughout the state, a coalition of 13 small-city school districts recently was authorized to proceed with a lawsuit seeking even greater state education aid increases. The teachers unions and others, too, have joined a similar plan to litigate for more money.
If the court system is going to be used to try to cure what ails the public education system, citizens should at least make sure they’re suing to get a prescription for something that works.
Rather than fighting to throw more funding at an obviously broken system, Buffalo parents are well-positioned to file a lawsuit seeking school choice scholarships as a remedy to educational inequity:
• The state constitution guarantees a “sound, basic education,” and an overwhelming majority of Buffalo’s students are being denied this fundamental right. Graduation rates top out around 50 percent, and 70 percent of students failed the most recent state English language arts and math exams.
• The state’s well-regarded system for identifying academic failure lists 77 percent of Buffalo’s public schools, and the entire district has remained on the state’s failing-districts list for a decade.
• Buffalo relies on the state for 77 percent of its state aid, ranking it first among large urban districts and 11th statewide. This heavy reliance on the state allows the state courts to order a fix, based on past court activity.
• The federal and state constitutions permit publicly funded school choice scholarships. Academic and field research, and charitable programs such as the BISON Scholarship Fund’s scholarships, show that school choice works. The courts should offer school choice scholarships to disenfranchised students as a way out of broken city schools.
Brian D. Backstrom is an alumnus of the University of Rochester and president of the Albany-based Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.