The public education landscape in Rochester has been shaped by a history of racial segregation and discrimination and inequitable school funding, as well as the introduction of charter schools in New York in 2000.
A Racial Divide
Rochester’s residents were nearly all white until the mid-20th century, when waves of black migrant workers from the south settled in southwest and northeast Rochester.
They were greeted immediately by restrictive real estate practices that limited them to a few neighborhoods as resources were systematically withdrawn from them. One black neighborhood that did flourish, Clarissa Street in the Third Ward, was demolished in favor of a highway that made it easier for white workers to commute to their new homes in the suburbs. Rochester was one of many cities to experience race riots in the 1960s, when the majority of Rochester City School District (RCSD) students were still white. In 1970-71, the district implemented a busing program intended to reduce segregation in what was still a fairly racially balanced city. Instead, as in other northern cities, conflict ensued and white families fled for the suburbs. Today, the city of Rochester is 46% white and 41% Black; however, only 10% of RCSD students identify as white.
In the 1970s, as courts demanded that states address spending disparities between wealthy and poor school districts, states including New York responded by funneling sales, oil and income tax revenue toward school budgets.
These funding streams can swing significantly depending on such factors as unemployment rates, the stock market and the weather, making the state’s reliance on these revenue sources for public school funding extremely precarious. Today, Rochester City School District gets more than 85 percent of its money from the state. The district spends around $12,500 per student, roughly $1,000 less than the state average. Its per-pupil spending on students who require special education is about $29,000, which is $3,000 less than the state average. Learn more.
Charter schools were introduced in New York in 2000. Under New York’s charter law, charters are initially allotted a term of 5 years by one of two charter school authorizers — the SUNY Board of Trustees or the New York State Board of Regents.
The school creates a charter, or plan, that includes standards for test performance, graduation rates and operational requirements to which it is held accountable. A school’s authorizer performs an annual audit which can include written reports and site visits to determine if the school is meeting the standards in its charter. When it is up for renewal, a school that is deemed to have successfully met these requirements is allowed to continue operating for up to 5 more years at a time. Schools that have not met their requirements may receive additional conditions to meet to continue operating, be given shorter renewal term limits, or even be closed.
All school-age children can apply and be admitted to a charter school. By law, charter school admission policies cannot discriminate against students based on Special Education needs, English Language Learner status or past academic performance. If more students apply than there are seats available, a lottery is held to determine who is admitted. Charter schools must administer all the same state tests and comply with all the same laws as district schools, but charter schools must also meet accountability standards or be shut down. In exchange, charter schools are given the freedom to develop their own curriculum, choose staff, and set the length of the school day and year.
Over 300 public charter schools serve 160,000 students in New York, 88% of whom are black or Hispanic. In Rochester, charter schools serve 6,000 students, compared with 30,000 students in RCSD.