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So tell me again: why are we doing this?

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It's been a winter of tension and pain for many Rochester students and their families. First, there was the deliberation over closing public schools, and the announcement that one, School 37, will close in June. Then, last week, the state announced that it will close two of Rochester's four charter schools.

            The idea has been that charters --- which are public schools but operate outside of the Rochester school district bureaucracy --- would do a better job educating children than non-charter public schools. And they're supposed to improve the non-charter schools through competition --- shaming them, I guess, by example.

            The two charters that will close at the end of this school year --- the Rochester Leadership Academy and the School of Science and Technology --- have done neither. Their student test scores are worse than the non-charters'. And about the only effect they've had on the non-charters is to suck money away from them as they sucked students out of them. State aid and other public funding follow the students to the charter schools.

            The two remaining charter schools --- Genesee Community School and Eugenio Maria de Hostos School --- have done better, and the state has renewed both of their charters.

            The faculty and parents at those two schools probably disagree, but it's clear to me that their records tell us very little. According to researchers at the Center for Governmental Research, who recently completed a study of Rochester's charter schools, the progress at Eugenio Maria de Hostos has been inconsistent, with test scores sometimes showing big gains, sometimes losses. Test scores have been "impressive" at Genesee Community, says CGR --- but as CGR notes, there's a significant difference between that school and the other three charters. Only 16 percent of the students at Genesee Community come from poor families. At Eugenio Maria de Hostos, that figure is 75 percent; at the Leadership Academy, it's 67 percent, at Science and Technology 70.

It's difficult to draw firm conclusions about the four charters, I admit. CGR had hoped to provide a greater statistical analysis than it did, but researchers found it hard to get the data they needed. Not all of the schools kept records the way CGR requested, and Genesee Community's staff declined to provide data on individual students.

            In addition, CGR found that the charters face a problem that plagues many other school districts: Very poor families move frequently, and their children change schools frequently. The disruption severely affects the children's learning, and researchers couldn't follow as many students as they wanted for the full five years of the study.

            CGR researcher Kent Gardner also says he's convinced that the Leadership Academy and Science and Tech were way too big. Small schools seem to do better --- though, says Gardner, we don't know exactly why. Perhaps it's that the principal has more hands-on interaction with students and faculty. A strong, talented principal is generally considered the single most important factor in a school's success, other than....

            Other than the student population itself. Schools in affluent neighborhoods have the aura of being better schools, as if they had the best teachers, best principals, best curriculum, best teaching methods.

            And no doubt schools in some affluent suburbs have a leg up in competing for top-quality faculty. But that's not always the case. And it's not the most important factor.

            A great faculty isn't the reason Harvard is a great university, Harvard professor Gary Orfield has said. It's a great university because it has great students. And the top public and private schools in Monroe County are "the best" because nearly all of their students have well-educated parents. Those students, says Gardner, get a lot of their education at home. And their parents tend to be highly involved in their children's education.

            The student populations of suburban schools are not predominantly poor. Suburban schools do not have high student turnover. They do not have lots of students with severe physical problems. They do not have lots of students suffering from the debilitating effects of lead poisoning. They do not have lots of students from families that speak little English.

            There are examples around the country of schools with overwhelmingly poor student populations that are dong well academically. But there aren't many of them. And some of them --- unlike public schools --- have the ability to easily expel students who misbehave or don't do their homework or are absent too much.

            Unless state officials change their minds, two of Rochester's charter schools will close in June. But another is preparing to open. And two others are in the making. The two schools that are closing are the two with the poorest academic performance --- and high student poverty rates. The one with the fewest poor students did the best. That mirrors the record of the city's non-charter public schools. And that has been true for more than a quarter of a century --- through a succession of superintendents, school boards, and reform efforts.

            We'll keep trying, though, searching for an easy fix, because real solutions aren't palatable. The least expensive solution is to integrate the county's schools, racially and economically. We're not about to do that, so the only other possibility is to spend vastly more money, to lower class sizes, operate smaller schools, pay enough to attract top-flight principals from around the country, and provide a raft of health and social services for the poorest students and their parents. Nobody knows whether that would work, because we've never tried it. And the State of New York resists the idea, to the point of ignoring a court order.

            We are paying for our failure and our lack of courage, in crime and in social-service and health costs. Those costs will grow as the number of poorly educated adults grows and New York's well-educated work force shrinks.

            But we'll keep trying the fad of the day --- at the moment, charter schools. They may not work, but we feel like we're doing something.

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