By George Gilder’s reckoning, Robert Wilmers has multiplied his own money 245 times since acquiring a controlling interest in M&T Bank in 1982, and Warren Buffett’s money 26 times since 1996. Buffett’s monumental holding company Berkshire Hathaway owns the Buffalo News, and also owns 5.4 million shares of M&T Bank, just a bit more than WIlmers himself owns. These investors have gotten very rich running enterprises that for the past three decades have produced astounding returns from a region that continues to lose population and grow in dependency on transfers of tax dollars from downstate New York.
Unlike Buffett, who has visited Buffalo, Robert Wilmers keeps an office and an apartment here. This sometime Buffalo executive—who has an office on Park Avenue in New York City, a vineyard in France, an apartment on the Left Bank, and a weekend home in the Berkshires—has a well deserved reputation for making money. Wilmers has not only won praise from Gilder, the trickle-down guru and Ronald Reagan hagiographer: Le grand chef de M&T won the 2011 Banker of the Year award from the trade journal American Banker and accolades from New York Times, Buffalo News, and Baltimore Sun writers, none of whom had a thing to say about the unanimous five-judge decision that forced M&T Bank to go back to court to defend (or settle) a case of egregious fraud as bad, if not as big, as any Wall Street ripoff from the recent global financial crisis.
All in, however, it’s pretty clear: Wilmers knows banking. Making money for shareholders is the job of a CEO. To read Edward Luce’s very smart Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent is to get sober quickly about the mismatch of America’s workforce to our economic trajectory, the dysfunction of government at every level, and the growing conviction among our elites that our education system is failing—all issues that Wilmers has addressed in his public communications and letters to shareholders—but also about the handcuffs on American CEOs. They simply must deliver or they’re out. Wealthy shareholders push and push them to deliver big returns, and so do the big mutual funds and the big pension funds that own much of the stock market. To read through the entirety of an M&T Bank 10-K report—the official, non-glossy filing that every stock-issuing company has to deliver to the federal government every December—is to see just how many eyes are focused on the business that Robert WIlmers runs.
Thus it’s remarkable that Wilmers has made the effort that he has, for the years that he has, to involve himself in the challenges of Buffalo—especially with his investment of over $23 million in public education, including $12 million into the Westminster Community Charter School, where he and his executives have been personally involved since 1993.
Wilmers spoke in great detail about that involvement at a recent, invitation-only presentation held at Canisius College. He spoke about the improvement in educational outcomes at Westminster Charter. He lauded the $6 million grant from the US Education Department for the Promise Neighborhood, which encompasses Westminster, Highgate Heights Elementary, Bennett High, and other institutions in the neighborhood, one of Buffalo’s poorest. He is enthusiastic about all the coordinated efforts, about all the inputs public and private. His presentation, a transcript of which was published in local media, is by turns alarming and compelling, but weirdly full of misleading statistics, irrelevancies, and complaints—demonstrating a CEO’s involvement, but far short of a definitive program.
“All of these initiatives,” he said in an essay whose preamble was about how ill-equipped Buffalo students are to enter the workforce, “[are] intended to create a cradle-to-career pipeline.
“[They] are ones in which I take the deepest possible personal interest, and are a demonstration of the commitment that M&T Bank is as serious about achieving positive results in support of education improvements as we are about the business of the bank.”
He criticized the Buffalo Public Schools administration for transferring neighborhood children all around town, at great public expense, rather than managing a system of neighborhood schools. He observed the decline in overall student population, even while noting that charter, private, and parochial schools are drawing those numbers down, too, but not mentioning that the district schools are left with a higher share of the disabled and special-needs population.
To read his essay is to conclude that it’s the Buffalo Public School system, especially the administration and the teachers, who are to blame for the lack of positive results.
Could that be true?
Wilmers: the management consultant for educators?
Wilmers, at 80, is still personally at the helm of a respected banking operation. He has a deserved reputation for hiring brilliant people. He does significant arts-related philanthropy through the M&T Foundation here and personally elsewhere. While the bank accumulates goodwill and gets massive positive PR for its highly visible donations to Buffalo-area cultural organizations, the company spends much more massively on PR in Baltimore (naming rights for M&T Bank Stadium will cost $60 million over the next 10 years), all of which are tax-deductible expenditures that you and I help pay for.
It’s just business.
Personally, though, there are the gifts and the voluntarism. Wilmers is currently a board member for the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, was a board member of the Andy Warhol foundation, and for years helped the Hudson Valley historic site connected to novelist Edith Wharton, the early-20th-century chronicler of her wealthy WASP class. Wilmers now also participates in international relations as board chair of the French Institute/Alliance Francaise. Previously, he served as titular head of the statewide economic development corporation, as a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tax reform commission, on the board of the New York Federal Reserve bank, and on other prestigious and influential boards.
From the standpoint of shareholders and regulators, these are the behaviors of a 20th-century, Manhattan-based business leader of the old school. Every institution in which he involves himself, as leader or donor, succeeds.
And then there’s his interest in public education, where neither his activism, his philanthropy, his political clout, nor his commitment of staff resources has worked.
Because Wilmers is the handcuffed CEO of a bank that relies on, profits from, and continually reinforces a destructive economic paradigm that is the very defining condition of the Rust Belt.
This is what the paradigm will mean if it continues. Take it from the UB Regional Institute’s One Region Forward projection of what the Buffalo area will look like if we persist in the “business as usual” approach that has framed the three decades of Robert Wilmers’s tenure as leader of M&T Bank. If we keep building houses here (M&T Bank is the leading mortgage lender in the Buffalo area), and developing commercial real estate here (M&T Bank is the chief financial institution for commercial real estate here), then, according to One Region Forward:
Building more homes when we already have thousands available, means that some homes will get left behind. If these projections hold true, we can expect to leave 41,291 additional homes abandoned by 2050. This abandonment would continue to sweep through places with high concentrations of vacant homes today, while spreading into other residential areas most prone to become abandoned.…based on the conditions that have been associated with increased abandonment in the past.
Nowhere in his presentation on education did Robert Wilmers connect the issues of poverty, residential segregation by income level, income-level segregation in schools, or any challenge to the paradigm that his own commercial enterprise is so essential to maintaining and continuing.
But abandonment, poverty, and schools are conjoined in a robust social science literature going back 50 years.
Not surprisingly, since Wilmers never mentioned that literature, none of the 400 people who were reported to have attended his presentation heard from him that he, personally, and through subordinates, actively undermined efforts to change that sprawl-without-growth, isolation-of-poverty paradigm. Wilmers, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and public-intellectual powerhouses like the Manhattan Institute opposed efforts to regionalize schools, to correct the Rust Belt problem that resulted from the 1972 US Supreme Court’s Milliken decision, which left communities of concentrated poverty marooned within the boundaries of old cities like Buffalo, where eight out of 10 children are from poverty-level households.
In other words, the income-mixing paradigm that works so well in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in more than 80 other regional school districts, in several large and medium-sized urban regions directly comparable to Buffalo, might have been achievable for Buffalo had the business leadership joined in. Under Wilmers, it didn’t.
But as a largely absentee owner of an enterprise that has yielded him massive riches, it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t undertake a task that in the Rust Belt is advanced only by a few marginal intellectuals, a few editorialists, and an occasional politician—namely, working to reverse the radical segregation by income that credible analysts have shown, again and again, to shape not only social and economic trends but educational outcomes.
Unlike in banking, where business leaders like Wilmers evidently follow the research on what works and avoid (mainly) the various fads and get-rich-quick schemes, Wilmers and other corporate leaders ignore 50 years of research—even from Harvard, Wilmers’s own alma mater, to which he’s donated heavily—that demonstrates that the key determinant of educational outcomes is the household income of the student body. Not race, not class size, not per-capita expenditure, not disability status—household income.
It’s simple. Poor kids achieve higher academic success when they are mixed in with children from higher-income households. The Coleman report of 1966 first showed the correlation. David Rusk and Jeff Mosely replicated the results in 1994, tracking kids in Albuquerque over 10 years, and finding that busting up the concentration of poverty in individual school buildings was even more important a determinant of educational outcomes than individual family income status. Statisticians from Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins found the same thing in 2004. Desegregation by income, not by race, has been the rule in the county-wide school district in booming Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, whose 50-year success in elevating the educational achievement of poor kids was chronicled in Gerald Grant’s book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh (Harvard University Press, 2009).
In 2011, a Buffalo State College graduate student of mine looked at every single school building in Erie County’s 28 school districts, and found the same pattern: The highest correlation of five factors—household income, race, disability status, class size, and per capita expenditure—was between household income and performance on the fourth- and eighth-grade English and math tests. Class size didn’t matter at all. Per capita expenditure didn’t matter at all. Disability status and race correlated a little, but the big match was household income.
The best indicator of household income is a student’s eligibility for FARMS, the acronym for free and reduced-cost meals. Overall, in all 45 elementary schools inside the City of Buffalo, the FARMS rate in 2011 was 77 percent. The four top-performing schools in both fourth- and eighth-grade tests had the lowest FARMS rate. The correlation with high-poverty schools is striking. Only the Westminster Community Charter School (85 percent FARMS) and the South Buffalo Charter School (84 percent FARMS) averaged scores that were above “proficient” in those tests.
But we knew this.
Students at Westminster Community Charter School, with its concentrated poverty, have enjoyed substantial extra funds (obviously inconsistent with Wilmers’s statement, in his recent presentation, that “giving more money to the district is not the solution”). But the evidence from all around the US, gathered over the past 50 years, is that the overwhelming presence of poverty inside and outside the schoolhouse depresses achievement.
Just a mile from the Promise Neighborhood, only 30 percent of the 625 middle-school kids at Amherst Middle School were eligible last year for free and reduced-price meals. White kids do better than visible minorities on the standardized math and English tests, but two things stand out: First, the black kids do remarkably better, with 66 percent or more of them performing at grade level despite their numbers accounting for almost all of the poverty measured in the school; second, the gap in performance by racial group is narrow, with 78 percent of the white kids scoring at grade level and everybody doing better overall.
Mixing children by income helps them. It helps educational outcomes. It reduces absenteeism. Behaviors change for the better.
Now there’s another Harvard book, this one from Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), which is all about income polarization. Putnam writes not just about the one percent, not just about the astounding outcomes of bankers who can multiply their individual holdings by 245 times their initial investment, as Robert Wilmers has—but more specifically about the social segregation, the residential segregation, that has accompanied this change in the distribution of income.
We are living through a huge societal change. It has happened here in Western New York on the same timetable as the massive expansion of the market capitalization of M&T Bank, which had $2 billion in assets in 1982, the year that Robert Wilmers and his co-investors won control of the bank’s board, and today’s nearly $100 billion enterprise. The segregation by income that has happened here is precisely as social scientists have seen elsewhere. The consequence has been, as we know from our own local experience, and as Robert Putnam once again quantifies, that social mobility and educational achievement both suffer.
During the time that M&T Bank financed sprawl, Buffalo not only did not grow—Buffalo hollowed out. The flagship regional bank, in its elegant downtown tower, fueled residential and commercial real-estate development as Buffalo’s segregation by income got more and more dramatic. M&T Bank profited from sprawl.
That’s not an indictment of this particular enterprise. Sprawl without growth is the destructive economic paradigm of Cleveland, Detroit, Syracuse, Rochester, Akron. Sprawl without growth, income polarization, income segregation, inner-city abandonment, active political resistance to regional land-use planning, regional fragmentation, and a bipartisan consensus to leave the status quo undisturbed—it’s how the Rust Belt stays poor and dysfunctional.
And that dysfunction shapes outcomes in schools.
The copycat campaign for the paradigm
Where once there was an expectable right-wing campaign against teachers’ unions, there is now a bipartisan campaign against teachers unions, led by a dramatic bipartisan consensus among elites. Bill and Melinda Gates, Carl Paladino, Cuomo, US Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and now Robert Wilmers, too, all ignore all the research that proves, year after year, that the Southern states, where there are no teachers unions, have the worst results in the country, and that charter schools, or any other management reform in schools, do what nervous bridegrooms and loud-mouthed politicians do: They over-promise and under-deliver.
As Edward Luce summarizes in Time to Start Thinking, which is mainly about American self-delusion, “Schools in the highest-ranking nations, such as Finland and Germany, which outclass the United States on virtually every measure, are fully unionized…both countries have much lower income disparities than does the United States.”
Luce quotes Richard Rothstein, a professor of education at UC Berkeley, who says of the film Waiting for Superman, which lionizes charter schools and is part of the campaign for characterizing public education as a failure: “The fact is that good teachers get bad results in poor zip codes and bad teachers get good results in wealthy zip codes,” Rothstein says, “That should be the starting point for any debate about performance.”
But pay closer attention, school reformers, to the findings published by the Century Foundation in Washington, whose leading educational experts include data-focused researchers like Richard Kahlenberg. Only a committed idealogue, or an astoundingly determined and habitual cynic, can muster the intellectual dishonesty to ignore the findings of Kahlenberg’s 2012 compilation of essays from all across the institutional spectrum, from universities (including Harvard) to think tanks. The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic diversity as an education reform strategy lists 83 school districts in which, in some way, socioeconomic status is used in administering education. This is about as real as it gets: There are almost four million kids who are living in systems that somehow handle this issue.
But not here.
Instead, we have what Buffalo typically gets: a lazy, copycat version of somebody else’s discredited reform agenda, advanced uncritically by the media operation that The Public’s Shane Meyer reported on recently—a media operation that Buffalo State College education professor Andrew B. Nikischer’s study revealed as willfully promotional of the pro-charter agenda, and dismissive of, or (willfully?) ignorant of, the robust literature linking socioeconomic issues to educational outcomes.
The Wilmers disconnect
There is enough blame to go around.
In his January speech, Wilmers failed to connect the dots. The brilliant banker, the man who evinces Manhattan sophistication, holds his employees to Harvard standards, hires wine-makers who are so good at running his vineyard that their product achieves 100 out of a possible 100 points on the best-known wine-quality index, didn’t have a damned thing to say about the 13-point achievement bump that poor kids get when they’re mixed in with middle-class kids. He also didn’t say much about teacher preparedness, teacher excellence, or the findings of Amanda Ripley’s 2013 study, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, which is all about why kids in Finland, Poland, South Korea, and Canada out-achieve US kids. (Hint: Their teachers are paid handsomely and come from the highest- or next-to-highest-regarded profession, and are all themselves academic stars.)
Instead, it was more rhetoric of failure, punishment, admonition, and blame, with an unhealthy dose of what any corporate CEO in the land can be expected to say to a watchful group of shareholders: We can fix this without spending money.
Call it the Wilmers disconnect. In it lies the story of the Rust Belt’s most urgent problem, and, sadly, the problem that is evidently too big even for a successful banker, philanthropist, international cultural leader and political confidant to comprehend. If the Harvard-educated guy at the helm of a $100 billion bank doesn’t make the connection, is it any wonder that all his allies don’t either?
But if you’ve been making tons of money from sprawl, urban abandonment, subsidized suburban real-estate development, and from decades of residential segregation by income, perhaps it’s no wonder you’d ignore decades worth of data about how sprawl, segregation by income, and urban abandonment hurt children.
What might change
The paradoxical good news for Buffalo is that the middle class is running out of money for college, just at a time when there’s an incentive to come and live inside the old boundaries of the City of Buffalo.
That incentive is the Say Yes to Education scholarship program. To be eligible, students must have attended a city school at least for the ninth through 12th grades, have graduated from a publicly funded school after 2013, and, in order to get the full ride, come from a household with an income of less than $75,000. The 100 percent scholarship is going to be available to kids who do the full K-12 program; the amount is reduced for fewer years of attendance, and for kids from richer families, but even for them, a $5,000 per-year grant almost covers the $6,000-per-year tuition at a SUNY or CUNY campus.
It’s the kind of deal that can turn heads and potentially change addresses. With over two-thirds of Buffalo-area tax filers reporting less than $50,000 in adjusted gross income, the potential audience for this incentive would seem self-evident.
But then there is the messaging issue: How do you sell Buffalo when the biggest banker in the region trumpets “failure” as the signature achievement of Buffalo’s schools, echoed by the governor, the leader of the school board’s majority faction, the only regional daily newspaper, and the leader of a parent activist group—notwithstanding the tendency of 400 opinion leaders (i.e., the audience of the January Canisius College presentation) being socially at risk unless they obligingly salute the critique delivered first-hand to them and them only?
Perhaps an alternative narrative has to be advanced. There is some evidence that the critique of Cuomo’s education agenda—especially from suburban school district leaders who object to the aggressively test-focused program now being advanced in Albany—is taking hold. Suddenly, suburban parent-teacher organizations, like the newly energized Buffalo parent-teacher organization, are finding their voices.
But the problem of concentrated poverty won’t yield to a single budget-year deal. If that deal includes the proposed 75 percent refundable tax credit for donations to charter schools, then Buffalo will doubtless see more charter schools—notwithstanding a student census that has dropped by more than 20 percent since the $1.4 billion school reconstruction program refreshed and repaired many more buildings than are currently needed.
What would be preferable, of course, would be an epiphany—for the leading private voice for educational uplift to embrace the robust research that links school-performance with social integration—and for the rhetoric of blame to give way to a collegial discourse of broad community engagement, boundary-crossing, embrace of positive incentives, and data-driven policy-making.
Don’t hold your breath. We’d need for the source of private wealth, which drives the philanthropy for community uplift, to be something other than the paradigm of community destruction that has enriched M&T Bank. Maybe wealth from actually making something, like solar panels, or LED lighting, or biomedical research, or even beer or bent metal, could support a change of direction. What’s left of labor is there. Some able parents are there. But repairing the damage of the sprawl years will take a very, very long time.
Cited in this essay:
Gerald Grant, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools In Raleigh. Harvard, 2009.
Richard Kahlenberg, ed. The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic diversity as an education reform strategy. Century Foundation Press, 2012.
Edward Luce, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Smon & Schuster, 2015.
Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy issues.