Here’s hoping the State Education Department is taking a page from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s playbook: Get some leverage, push for the change you really want and get on with it. That’s what Cuomo did with the Peace Bridge and the Seneca Niagara Casino, and it’s an approach the Education Department should consider regarding the problem of Buffalo Public Schools.
Specifically, this could be useful in the confrontation regarding students at Lafayette and East high schools. Under a directive issued by Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., any student from those schools must be allowed to attend Erie 1 BOCES for career and technical education or the district must take on Erie 1 BOCES as the “educational partnership organization” for those radically under-performing schools.
It was an idea borne of frustration over the inability of the district to improve the performance of those schools or even to produce turnaround plans acceptable to the state. Johns Hopkins University was to be the educational partnership organization for both schools, but the district – true to form – never presented an acceptable agreement to the state.
With students failing like snowflakes in a furnace, King responded with his order. As understandable as his frustration is, BOCES has no record as a partner in turning around misfit schools, while Johns Hopkins does.
It gets worse, because King’s July 10 letter to the district also denied the district millions of federal grant dollars that would have funded Johns Hopkins’ role at Lafayette and East. He has since said that the district can continue working with Johns Hopkins, as long as it comes up with the $3.6 million necessary. That expense would be in addition to the money the district would have to pay Erie 1 BOCES, estimated to be between $859,000 and $3.5 million, depending on which option it chose.
What to do?
How about this: With the financial club – that is to say, leverage – of the BOCES/Johns Hopkins dilemma that the Education Department has engineered, King should give the district one final opportunity – with someone responsible looking over its shoulder – to produce an agreement with Johns Hopkins that is acceptable to the state, that will free up the withheld federal aid to fund the agreement and, most importantly, that will give the put-upon students at East and Lafayette a chance for a decent education.
If that can occur, the financial cost to the district would be about zero. If it can’t, the cost could reach to more than $7 million. Which would you choose?
Not only would that save the district money, but it would bring the expertise of Johns Hopkins fully into play, a goal that the Education Department surely shares, given its compelling interest in improving the performance of these schools. Everyone wins – especially students.
This is the Cuomo model. It’s controversial and it’s not pretty, but neither are graduation rates of 27 percent (East) and 21 percent (Lafayette). Such failure defies description. The word crisis is too weak for the circumstances. Prompt, radical action was needed, and that’s what King provided.
But even his directive doesn’t give the poorly served students of East and Lafayette the help they need. Johns Hopkins would – or, at least, is more likely to – meet that need.
That’s why King’s approach works best as a last-chance inducement for the district to get its act together and produce an acceptable plan to bring in Johns Hopkins as the educational partnership organization. Both the district and the State Education Department need to understand that fact before millions of local dollars are unnecessarily spent on a project that doesn’t do the job.