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I always love it when a local publication releases its annual “school rankings” issue.

And not for reasons you might think. To me, it’s not about bragging rights, or to label schools as “good” or “bad.” It is not to prop up the wrongheaded notion that suburban teachers run laps around their city counterparts.

No, I like the rankings, which are based solely on test scores, for one reason – they confirm what education experts have said for decades: The biggest factor in how well kids do in school is not quality of teachers, variety of programs, class size, access to computers or how often pizza is served in the cafeteria. No, it’s socioeconomics.

Schools stuffed with the kids of college-educated, higher-income parents score high. Schools overfilled with kids from poorer, less-educated households score low. It’s that simple.

Check the just-released Business First list. The highest-ranking public high schools in Erie and Niagara counties are, predictably, in places where most folks don’t fret about the electric bill: East Aurora, Williamsville East, Clarence, Williamsville North, Williamsville South, Orchard Park, Lewiston-Porter, Iroquois (Elma) and Lancaster. The exception is top-ranked City Honors, a test-in school for high-performing Buffalo kids.

The “bottom 10” all are Buffalo schools filled with inner-city kids: Burgard, Lafayette, Riverside, East, South Park, I-Prep, Bennett, McKinley, Oracle and Seneca.

If you can’t connect the socioeconomic dots, you get an “F.”

The city/suburbs performance divide underlines the grim reality of not just how racially segregated the region is, but – more to the point – how economically segregated it is. The median family income in towns housing the top five schools ranges from $84,155 (Aurora) to $98,914 (Clarence). Median family income in Buffalo? $36,700.

The researchers who wrote the Coleman Report would not be surprised. The landmark 1966 study concluded – with plenty of backup since – that the main factor in school performance is his how much money kids’ parents make and how educated they are. Period.

Of course, a lot of people – including, sadly, test-obsessed state education officials – do not factor socioeconomics into test scores. If they did, they would – and should – grade on a demographic curve. Instead, they see the numbers as “proof” that high-ranking schools have better teachers, superior programs or some magic juju that spurs students. Teachers in tax-controversy Clarence are just the latest to use the rankings to justify $90,000-plus salaries, raises and nearly fully paid health care.

I don’t want to diminish the good work that teachers do. But, for the most part, test scores are not about how good a particular school’s teachers are. Instead, they reflect the background of the kids they teach.

Doubt it? Then imagine this: Take all the kids from, say, Buffalo’s Burgard High and send them to Williamsville East for a year. Take the Williamsville East kids and send them to Burgard for a year. You don’t have to be a school superintendent to guess what would happen: Test scores at Burgard would skyrocket, test scores at Williamsville would nosedive.

It would not be because the Burgard teachers suddenly upped their game, or because the Williamsville teachers lost their touch. It would be about who is sitting at the desks.

That’s why regionalism guru David Rusk has long pushed for fairer housing policies, to ease the overload of poor families in inner cities. Everything from mandated mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to sprawl-reversing business tax breaks, fuels the economic integration that would level the field in classrooms across the region.

“Housing policy is school policy,” wrote Rusk in a still-relevant 2001 report on Erie County schools. Inner-city classrooms “cannot overcome the many problems and minimal home support many children bring to school ... With 80 percent poor children, you aren’t going to ‘fix’ the Buffalo schools.”

There is no reason for suburban teachers to check the school rankings and feel smug. Just as there is no reason city teachers – of whom my wife is one, although not in a classroom – to feel defensive. But given what is at stake, I think there is every reason to understand what these test scores are really about.

Some places do. There is a growing national movement to economically integrate schools. Studies show that poorer kids do better when surrounded by Hollister-wearing classmates. The upscale kids, in return, get the diversity benefit – hugely touted as a selling point by colleges – of meeting kids from a different background. It works all around.

Check the school rankings, if you insist. But if you want to put any weight behind the numbers, I think you first have to level the playing field.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com