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It's not your problem



Only about a quarter of Rochester's 9th graders graduate four years later --- and only 4 percent of those freshmen get Regents diplomas. In 2001, only 11 percent of Rochester's 8th graders passed the state math exam.

                  If you live in a Rochester suburb, that's not your problem. It's not the State of New York's problem, either. Nor is it the problem of the businesses and industries looking for well-educated workers. It's not the problem of the Rochester Business Alliance, the Greater Rochester Enterprise, or Monroe County officials, all of whom are trying to attract businesses to the Rochester area.

                  It's not anybody's problem except the Rochester School District's.

                  When the school district's statistics make the news, you can fume, and wonder why Rochester can't fix things. But you don't have to worry about the quality of city children's education. That's not your problem. The State of New York says so.

                  The state constitution guarantees that all New York children will get a "sound, basic education." That is not happening in any of the state's urban districts. But the state says the problem has to be solved at the local level. And "local" means "city": Rochester's neighboring suburban districts say Rochester must solve the problem on its own.

                  The problem is, Rochester can't solve the problem on its own.

Last week in Albany, two suits --- one originating in Rochester, the other in New York City --- continued to grind their way through the legal system. Both seek to compel the state to give their students the education they're entitled to.

                  The New York City suit, filed by a group known as Citizens for Fiscal Equity, says the problem is money: The state doesn't give the school district enough to do its job. CFE has detailed severe disparities between schools in New York City and its suburbs. New York's teachers are far less qualified; many buildings are in abysmal shape.

                  The Rochester suit (filed by the Greater Rochester Area Coalition for Education --- GRACE) says that for this district, the issue isn't money. It's the high level of poverty of its students. More than 90 percent of Rochester students are poor; the district, says GRACE, can't overcome the problems spawned by concentrated poverty.

                  The New York Court of Appeals heard arguments from GRACE, CFE, and the state on May 8. Even if Rochester gets a successful ruling at this stage, there's a long way to go, with more court appearances. But GRACE attorney Jim Gocker says he thinks the Rochester suit has a chance, that in the end, the state could be ordered to develop a plan to deal with the city's concentrated poverty.

                  If so, that would be a shock. The GRACE lawyers aren't pushing for a specific remedy. But to break up Rochester's concentrated poverty, we'd have to meld poor students and more affluent ones in some way. We could draw different school-district boundaries, for instance, or create more magnet schools, or expand the Urban-Suburban program, in which about 600 city students attend suburban schools. Any remedy would be controversial.

                  State officials insist that the concentrated poverty of urban school districts isn't the state's fault. But it is, of course: The state created the school-district boundaries. It created the boundaries of cities, towns, and villages.

                  Low-income families can't afford most suburban housing, and most suburbs have turned away subsidized housing. Few suburban districts admit city students.

Odds are,the courts won't order the state to do a thing, and few New Yorkers will be troubled by that. Most seem convinced that any district canprovide a good education if it hires good teachers, good principals. Nowhere in the United States, however, is there an entire urban school district that's successful. They can't all be hiring lousy staff.

                  Last week, one Court of Appeals judge focused on the importance of "local control." New Yorkers tend to think that each local district has the right to govern itself, and the state shouldn't butt in.

                  But school districts have "local control" only when it suits the state. Fairport Superintendent William Cala and the Fairport School Board learned that lesson when they said they wouldn't pass a budget this year until the perpetually late state passed its own budget. The state responded that if Cala and the board didn't pass their budget on time, they could be removed from office.

                  The state sets certification requirements for teachers, the length of the school year, even --- over the objections of some schools --- some of the tests students must take.

                  And, Gocker notes, the definition of "local" has changed, as have the boundaries of individual school districts. In the late 1800s, New York had more than 11,000 official school "districts" (at that time, actually, individual schools). Now there are only 700 districts. As needs and population have changed, districts have morphed and merged.

Among the state's astonishing contentions as it has fought the two suits is that New York children don't need a high-school education. An 8th-grade education is a "sound, basic education," state lawyers have insisted in the CFE suit.

                  "It's 2003," moans Gocker, "and we're in New York State, and we're talking about whether the standard is an 8th-grade education or high school?" (If students need only an 8th-grade education, asks Gocker, why require them to stay in school until they're 16?)

                  In his argument last week, Gocker says, he told the Court of Appeals: "This is the Empire State. Either we're going to provide an education for all of our kids, or we're going to continue to be the most segregated state in the union."

                  That has severe ramifications for the state and for every city and suburb in it.

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