I've frequently been critical of Carl Paladino, but on the issue of schools, he's right. Something needs to be done. I was initially dumbfounded by Business First's selection of Paladino as the most influential person in WNY, but they were right. Influence doesn't have to be done the way I want it done to be influence. Truth is, at this moment in time, Paladino is putting his money where his mouth is, and people are hearing him roar. Are they listening? That remains to be seen.
Yesterday, I couldn't ever imagine myself writing a piece in support of Carl Paladino. This morning I listened to Dave Debo's January 27th interview with Paladino on Hardline (in my opinion, the only thing worth listening to on WBEN). The statistics Paladino quotes are sobering: Buffalo is the third most expensive school system in the country, at $26,900 per student per year. Only 26 percent passing on English, 31 percent passing on Math. New York City's passing rates are double those of Buffalo. Although Paladino didn't mention it in the interview, Buffalo's graduation rate is abysmally low, hovering around 50 percent.
Paladino posits that our school system is the "sole reason Buffalo looks like it does today." We'll have to disagree there. There are so many reasons Buffalo looks like it does today. Too many IDAs, lack of a regional approach to planning and business development, too many self-interested government entities. Paladino also says, "the middle class had to flee the city to find education for their children." Two things here - there are some great educational opportunities in Buffalo. City Honors is perennially recognized for excellence. Performing Arts does good things, and there are some fantastic private school options in the city and the suburbs, and scholarships available to help pay for it.
I also think the middle class left as part of the suburban sprawl movement that began in the 1970s and has continued steadily since. The sprawl left the schools decimated, not the other way around. (Full disclosure: I'm a sprawler. I have never lived in the city in all of my almost 50 years in Buffalo. Paladino's not a sprawler - he's never left the City.)
This problem is big and involves decades of downward trends. Parents, often too young to be parents themselves, have no foundation in good education with which to help their kids be successful. Paladino mentions this, but he pulls up short here by saying "we can't do anything about those families." If we want to solve the big picture problem, we have to attack the underlying issues. In his day job, Paladino would never build a building on an unsuitable foundation. If parents can't encourage and even help their kids with their homework, there is a very low chance of success for the child. We need a program here, to help parents help their kids. As a teacher myself, I definitely find a correlation between the amount a parent can and will help their kids and the student's success.
The thing that struck me the most about the interview - the thing that gave me hope - is when Paladino said, "we're going to be back in front of the School Board again and start with a couple of issues." I believe this is the best way forward: if Paladino approaches this from an issue or two at a time, in a sensible non-nuclear way, he has the real possibility of making substantive change. If he wants to use weapons of mass destruction, many sensible people will steer clear. That doesn't mean, by the way, that he can't seek cataclysmic change. Often when big change is happening, people who are not suited for it will leave on their own, fearing being left behind. That's ultimately what he wants, right? This is a different way to get to the same place.
On this idea, Paladino is a bold idea guy. Using the Richardson Complex as a residential school is big, bold and costly. Unless he is willing to foot the bill, and see little to no return on his money, it probably isn't going to happen. It's an amazing old building, which makes it attractive to potential developers for more profitable projects. The cost of turning it into a residential school would be astronomical, and it would be designed to serve a population segment that has no money to pay tuition. There's clearly very little chance of return on investment.
There are already some great programs out there that are addressing some of these problems. Stacey Watson's Drop-In Nation is earning great results getting kids to drop back in to school, and be very successful, and serving the unemployed and the underemployed. See Watson's presentation at TEDxBuffalo here.
If Paladino is serious about this cause, in addition to being out front and calling attention to it, he should seek out and help to strengthen these positive impact programs.
This is a much bigger issue than just the School Board. On the issue of failing schools, Carl Paladino is correct, there is a big, big problem and it is a significant part of Buffalo's overall lack of any forward momentum. He has the real chance to use his financial resources and his notoriety to effect enormous change. This would certainly prove Business First was correct naming Carl Paladino as the most influential person in Western New York.