New York's schools are the most segregated in the nation, and the state needs remedies right away. That was the message delivered to the governor and the Legislature last week by the chancellor of the State Board of Regents. Minority children are disproportionately trapped in schools that lack the teaching talent, course offerings and resources needed to prepare them for college and success in the new economy.
This is not an easy problem to solve. But the state cannot just throw up its hands. It has a moral obligation to ensure that as
many children as possible escape failing schools for ones that give them a fighting
chance. And history has shown that districts can dramatically improve educational opportunities for minority children — and reduce racial isolation — with voluntary transfer plans and especially with high-quality magnet schools that attract middle-class families.
This problem is especially urgent in New York's second-largest city, Buffalo, where federal civil rights officials are enforcing an agreement intended to expand minority access to the better schools in a dysfunctional system, which has suffered from years of abysmal leadership and middle-class flight. Today nearly half the city's public schools either have low graduation rates or rank in the bottom 5 percent of state schools in math and English.
The United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights began its investigation of charges that the district was discriminating against nonwhite students in admissions to the better schools — those that choose students based on test scores and other screening.
As part of a sweeping resolution agreement with the federal government, the district hired a consultant who is studying the system with the aim of addressing "the root causes" of racial disparities in enrollment and admission rates at the special admission schools — known in Buffalo as "criteria schools."
Among other things, this means going back to earlier grades to determine why children might not be getting the guidance, courses and information they need to gain access or admission to the criteria schools. The district did re-evaluate the applications of the children whose families filed the complaint and admitted those who were eligible, providing help and support where necessary.
One obvious step would be for Buffalo to expand seats in its eight criteria schools so that more children can benefit. But the federal civil rights agreement does not address the school system as a whole, which is still shortchanging minority children.
The irony of the Buffalo situation is that during the 1970s the city made great progress in addressing racial isolation in its schools. A court-ordered desegregation plan pushed Buffalo to create a much sought after system of magnet schools that improved prospects for poor children and attracted large numbers of middle-class families.
As The Times reported in 1985, the city was viewed as a national model for racial integration; educators who wished to learn the lessons of Buffalo's success flocked to the city from around the globe. Things went downhill in the 1990s, however, when court supervision ended and Buffalo experienced severe fiscal problems.
The magnet schools that had been so popular were scaled back, alienating middle-class families once again. The decision to dismantle the model system, in other words, was a disastrous mistake. More recently, the Buffalo school system has been hobbled by a wasteful, outmoded teachers' contract that provides unusually generous benefits and makes it difficult to manage the teaching force. The district has also suffered from inept leadership that has not met basic obligations. It has failed, for example, to file acceptable, legally required plans with the state for turning around low-performing schools. This week, The Buffalo News raised troubling questions about the accounting for funds earmarked for rebuilding the city's crumbling schools.
The Cuomo administration alluded to the chronic problems in the Buffalo schools last month when it asked the Board of Regents what should be done about their "deplorable conditions." Support appears to be growing for laws giving the state more authority to force policy changes on failing districts and to even appoint receivers to run day-to-day operations, which may be necessary in Buffalo.