News & Opinion » Columns

State takeover of RCSD is not the answer

by and

Jitu Brown is national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. Rosemary Rivera is co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York (and former Rochester education organizer). Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal will return next week.

We know that Rochester residents want the same thing: excellent public schools where it is a joy to teach and learn. The fact that this vision hasn’t been realized on a district-wide basis is painful, and there’s a growing sentiment that something has to be done, anything, to turn the tide. However, dissolving a democratically elected school board takes Rochester further from its goal and disempowers the very community it should be lifting up.

In 2002, New York State officials approved a takeover of Long Island’s Roosevelt school district. Like the RCSD, Roosevelt’s enrollment is a majority students of color, with more than half of its students living at or below the poverty line. The takeover fell short of its goals. Roosevelt schools did not improve academically during the 11-year takeover.

The State Board of Regents has an important role to play: in supporting the Rochester school board and helping it make good decisions for schools. But to pin the problems in the RCSD on the school board is misguided. There is no quick fix for school performance when large numbers of children are struggling with poverty, hunger, and housing insecurity.

Rochester public schools are still owed $97 million as part of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a landmark court case ruling that New York’s public schools are unfairly funded. Because of Governor Cuomo’s failure to comply with the court ruling, schools continue to face annual budget cuts that hurt students and teachers.

At the same time, we have failed to fully contend with the role of structural racism in education outcomes. Students of color face disproportionately high rates of suspension and excessive discipline. When students are suspended for weeks at a time, they fall behind and their academic performance suffers.

Schools like Enrico Fermi School 17 have emphasized restorative practices to repair school relationships and keep students engaged in the classroom. The improvement in academic performance has been remarkable, and Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino highlighted school climate as a major bright spot in the district. The strides made by School 17 should serve as a model for the rest of the Rochester City School District.

Enrico Fermi is a community school that provides wraparound services, including an on-site recreation center with after-school programs and meals for children. The board is strongly in favor of expanding the community school model and restorative practices, but these programs require investment. Addressing the problems faced by students and families in poverty takes a “whole student” approach.

Moments of crisis can lead us to take rash actions. The Chamber of Commerce and pro-business groups will use this crisis as an opportunity to push privatization and charter expansion – an approach we’ve already seen fail in New Orleans, Newark, and Detroit. These are the same groups that have worsened the crisis through the shameless promotion of austerity budgets and anti-worker policies that keep people trapped in poverty.

A recent study by the Education Justice Network shows that countries that invest in public education with a focus on equity outperform countries that have privatized their education systems. Canada outperforms the United States, Cuba outperforms Chile, and Finland outperforms Sweden. What children in New York and other urban communities across the United States need is equity.

Progress in our schools has been slow and uneven, but we know what works. Our focus should be on expanding the successful programs we see at Enrico Fermi School 17, Francis Parker School 23, World of Inquiry School 58, and many other outstanding schools in the district. Taking away the voice of voters and community members isn’t the answer.