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Failure is Sadly an Option for City’s Schools

by on August 31, 2009

Buffalo’s schools suck less than before. But that’s far different than being successful. Even if the wobbly district has taken the first step that begins a thousand-mile journey, there’s still much ground ahead. The Buffalo News article detailing their status starts with a rather rosy perspective before filling in the sobering details:

Buffalo’s school reform effort took another substantial step forward Thursday when 10 city schools were removed from the state’s list of those “in need of improvement.”

Buffalo remains a “district in need of improvement” for the seventh consecutive year, and 25 of the city’s 60 schools continue to be listed as needing improvement based on student participation and performance on math and English language arts assessment tests.

Well, it’s easy to improve when there’s so little room left to regress. While it’s nice to make gains, they must be qualified in relative terms. We shouldn’t dispense medals to competitors who hurdle a bar they themselves set so low.

There’s a high cost of such an underwhelming performance. It’s one far more tangible than the frightening abstract notion of sending unprepared kids into adulthood: Buffalo’s schools reportedly spend $16,120 per pupil, which is ridiculous compared to the national average. The figure would be fantastically pricey even if the city’s learning outposts were performing well, which isn’t generally the case.

To be fair, there are some schools in or near Buffalo that do a fine job of educating young people at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t run any of them. Private schools are largely doing much more with much less money for students. At most, it costs about one thousand dollars more per kid to go to Nichols and a little less to attend the Park School than it would be to currently put a youngster through a public equivalent; parents can decide which they’d prefer to send their children to for the money if given the option.

The private academies and Catholics don’t possess any special financial powers, aside from persuasive nuns employed by the latter. These schools are simply not able to take what they want, which means they have to get by with what they can raise. That necessarily leads to efficiency. On top of that, such institutions compete with each other to offer the best education at a reasonable price. Free markets benefit students.

But that won’t stop public schools from continuing to get gymnasiums full of cash. It’s the case even though such infusions are counterproductive. The mentality that we’re dooming kids when we don’t spend fortunes on their educations just leads to larger costs for crummy results.

It’s the same as any other industry where the government’s involved. For one, the Post Office can’t compete with private delivery services despite its propensity for hiking prices at will. On the other hand, the FedEx and UPS equivalents that educate local young people will keep responding to consumers. Buffalo’s school district could learn something from the package-delivering industry, but they’ll likely continue to just raise rates.

The result is emptier pockets among the public that funds public education. Conversely, lower taxes would mean more money in paychecks; that might allow parents to afford shipping their children to a preferred learning establishment. The tradeoff is less reliance on government, which is no tradeoff at all. And who knows? Maybe heartless rich tycoons and barons might be convinced to fund charter schools or scholarships for the disadvantaged with private donations if they were allowed to keep more of what they make.

Meanwhile, the district is trying to shroud one of its chief expenditures in secrecy. As a story from the same day’s paper notes,

Internet surfers won’t find the salaries of teachers, principals and other school district employees on Buffalo’s Web site any time soon.

Superintendent James A. Williams has rebuffed Mayor Byron W. Brown’s call to follow the city’s lead and post all salaries on Buffalo’s Internet portal.

“I don’t see the need for it,” Williams said Thursday.

Other than the right of the people who pay the salaries of district employees to know each amount, Williams is right. It’s hard to see why the superintendent has a reputation for arrogance.

But refusing to admit how much each worker costs taxpayers isn’t even the biggest problem facing Williams. It’s far more pressing for him to lower the proportion of inadequate schools. For now, over 41 percent of them “need improvement,” and even dropouts could tell you that’s a failing mark. The district shouldn’t be bragging about their report card: they didn’t even get promoted to the next grade, much less earn a trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

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