The new Buffalo Board of Education majority intends to start dramatically overhauling the city’s schools when it meets Wednesday, proposing significant changes such as increasing the number of charter schools and lobbying for more state intervention in the school system.
The ultimate goal is to increase the number of spots in high-performing schools by about 4,300 in the next two years, which could potentially touch 13 percent of the district’s students.
But executing that plan hangs on garnering support from a long list of stakeholders, ranging from parents and teachers to charter school operators and state lawmakers.
A major part of the new board majority’s six-point strategy is to encourage the growth of charter schools by offering incentives to entice both successful local charters and national charter management organizations.
The plan also calls for:
• Increasing the number of seats at the district’s top-performing schools, including City Honors and Olmsted;
• Appealing to suburban school district officials to allow city students to transfer into their schools;
• Asking the state to designate part of the Buffalo system as a “recovery district,” turning control of the lowest performing schools over to the State Education Department;
• Implementing Opportunity Scholarships that students could use to attend private schools; and
• Evaluating the district’s career programs, and assessing ways to create and expand those that align with future workforce needs.
The new board’s first meeting this week will likely touch off this series of aggressive reforms that could result in the creation of 4,300 spots in high-performing schools by the start of the 2015-16 school year.
The multi-pronged approach is a departure from the charter-centric one that some candidates advanced before the May election, but one some educators say is essential to turning around one of the state’s most struggling school systems.
And it’s one that is already drawing national attention from urban school systems desperate for solutions to improve student performance.
“The fact that the state’s second-largest school district is pushing that kind of bold reform is impressive,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of Students First New York, which supports school choice and the expansion of charter schools. “This is exciting for Buffalo and exciting for New York and other large districts across the country who will be watching.”
The work will not be without challenge, however, especially in a school district known more for its political turmoil than even its poor academic outcomes. Board members will have to convince key players that they can create a system that can sustain itself – even when they leave office.
The new board majority will also have to navigate opposition from charter school critics and the powerful teachers union, which already is questioning whether the plan amounts to abandonment of the city’s public school system.
“It seems like they’re giving up on Buffalo Public Schools,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore.
And even if they succeed, the work will be a small first step to turning around what many argue is a broken school system.
“The issue is so severe and the sense of urgency so great they should be looking at all their options,” said Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “Even if you do all of that you’re still going to have a battle ahead.”
More seats at top schools
The predominant goal of the new board majority’s plan is to create more seats in high-performing schools, and central to doing that is enticing more charter schools to open in the city.
Most public school systems historically have been reluctant to collaborate with charter schools, which critics argue drain resources from traditional public school systems. Since state funding is tied to students, districts lose money for every child who transfers to a charter. And critics argue those students tend to be the highest-performing, leaving the most challenging students behind in large concentrations.
Yet supporters say charter schools offer a viable alternative for students who are not succeeding in traditional public schools. The need for an alternative was apparent last year when roughly 2,000 Buffalo parents exercised their federal right to request that their child be allowed to attend a higher-performing school. The district could only accommodate several hundred.
Convincing charter schools to open here will likely depend on more than just political support, said Phillips of the charter network.
“I think the interest will be mixed,” Phillips said. “The fact that the board has a pro-charter majority definitely will get some notice. But you don’t flip this on like a switch. Doing this kind of stuff takes time to build momentum.”
The clock is already ticking for interested operators to open by next school year. The board’s first meeting will not happen until after the first state deadlines for charter school applications has passed.
“It’s an aggressive deadline,” Phillips said. “I think we need to be realistic that it might take two years.”
Most charter school providers also will want assurances the district provides space for them. State law currently puts charter schools at somewhat of a disadvantage because it does not provide them with funding for building space.
Then there is the question of how much of the need charter schools can feasibly fill. Just 12 of the district’s 57 schools are deemed to be in good standing, leaving the vast majority of students in schools that have been deemed failing.
Some members of the new board majority previously had talked about converting as many of the district’s schools into charters as possible, but the new multi-point approach reflects a newer realization that this may not be feasible.
“When you look at the sheer scale of the problem in Buffalo, we will not be able to bring 45 new charter schools to Buffalo in two years,” Phillips said.
Some members are critical
The incoming board majority, however, need not look far to encounter their first opposition – some of their colleagues on the School Board.
Coming off of an election that created a new majority on the board, those in the new minority already have been critical of some members’ push to create charter schools, questioning their motives and claiming conflicts of interest.
“The politics that are at play here are a major concern for me,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman. “All sorts of things are going on that are disingenuous, in my view.”
Former board President Barbara Seals Nevergold has defended the district’s performance and the track that it is on, downplaying problems in the Buffalo schools.
Any closing or conversion of schools also is likely to affect the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and some education insiders have speculated the new majority’s plan is a way to squeeze contract concessions out of the union.
New board member Larry Quinn said while that is not the driver of the reform plan, it could be a result.
“This is not about union busting at all,” Quinn said. “It’s not about trying to eliminate or hurt somebody. But something has to change. The way we define every single thing we do, it’s like we’re building cars.
“If the union wants to, I think we can rip it up and do a real contract that treats them as professionals,” he added. “If not, we still have to do something.”
Closing or converting schools could bring consequences, including a mass shuffling of teachers among schools. Closing schools likely will result in the loss of district teaching positions. And because of contractual rules, those with the most seniority will have a right to stake a claim to jobs.
Board members acknowledge these potential consequences, but say it is critical to move forward on their plans in the next two years before some members of the new majority will be up for re-election.
“I think we have to be mindful of that ripple effect,” said new board President James Sampson. “At some point we have to move forward. We understand that there’s a two-year window. We have to move pretty aggressively.”
And the results of the next two years will likely set the district’s trajectory for the future.
If the new majority – Sampson, Quinn, Carl Paladino, Jason McCarthy and Patricia Pierce – succeeds and its plan brings results, voters will be more likely to return similar-minded candidates to those seats to continue the work.
Otherwise, it may be back to the drawing board.
“They’re going to need to see results in two years, and that’s going to be incredibly difficult,” said Sedlis, executive director of Students First New York. “The board’s really going to need to engage with the community up front and get broad buy-in on their vision.”