A Dillar, A Dollar...
Glendale, Ariz. "School Colors," your special issue on education [June 5], was outstanding. I would make one small criticism. Arizona has been at the forefront of the charter school movement, with many charter schools, yet it was barely mentioned. Your readers should know of the large numbers of problems that go along with large numbers of charter schools. Our latest scandal involved an administrator inflating her school's enrollment figures to get more money from the state to finance her luxury purchases and vacations. DONELLA L. SCOTT
"School Colors," your special issue on education [June 5], was outstanding. I would make one small criticism. Arizona has been at the forefront of the charter school movement, with many charter schools, yet it was barely mentioned. Your readers should know of the large numbers of problems that go along with large numbers of charter schools. Our latest scandal involved an administrator inflating her school's enrollment figures to get more money from the state to finance her luxury purchases and vacations.
DONELLA L. SCOTT
Laguna Beach, Caif.
Your education issue should be awarded a gold medal in the olympics of fatuousness. Basic problems are evaded. Here are three: (1) Money: not enough. Programs are cut back, merged or dropped. Now only one state requires physical education every school day (as the rate of obesity among the young rises). (2) Uniformity: Vocational, commercial, arts and other curriculums have been dropped; only college-prep courses are offered in most systems. Many students are baffled and bored; subject matter is dumbed down; all are cheated. (3) Administrators: Too many, too costly, too dumb. The debacle in the LA Unified ($200 million down the drain!) is only the most glaring example of how helpless these "experts" are.
Most students finish high school with rudimentary skills. Those who go to the university must be given remedial courses so that at last they can begin to learn spelling, reading, math, physics and how to use a library. The pathetic record of the public schools is becoming apparent to the voters, at least in California. A voucher system could win, and the public system would be destroyed, and that would be a step backward.
Whether Jonathan Schorr's enthusiasm for charter schools is merely a naïve throwback to sixties wishful thinking about the radicalizing influence of "free schools" or a typically Clintonite attempt to sanitize an inherently conservative policy proposal (I suspect the latter), progressives would be ill advised to follow his path.
Charter schools, with the exception of those few directly accountable to local school boards, are not public independent schools, as he asserts. They are publicly funded private schools. No matter how "progressive" the curriculum, they represent a free-market solution to the problems of education, namely privatization. The "fears" and "worries" of those on the left that he so casually dismisses are in fact the essential reality of charter schools: diversion of resources, hostility to collective bargaining, a stalking horse for voucher systems.
Schorr appears to be ignorant of what public schools are supposed to be--common schools owned and controlled by the community, bringing together diverse groups of students to learn together. At their best, as envisioned by John Dewey, they could be institutions in which democratic values and behavior could form the basis for a curriculum that all children would experience as a basis for building a better society.
Obviously, our public schools fall far short of that ideal. But charter schools--which appeal to different educational "markets," separate them and educate them in radically different settings--can never achieve it. Thus Schorr's belief that charter schools can lead to racial equality is laughable, since in our racist society any form of school choice will inevitably lead to even greater racial, and class, segregation. Progressives who want educational change are going to have to wage the struggle for it within the public school system, not escape it by setting up comfortable pedagogical ghettos outside it.
Schorr should be aware that there are those of us who are still prepared to fight the application of market ideology to the restructuring of public education and who see through his specious arguments about the merits of privatization in the form of private schools.
New York City
Jonathan Schorr equates choice with charter schools and does not distinguish clearly enough between charter schools managed by for-profit companies and those managed democratically by teachers and parents. The threat of a for-profit corporate takeover of the charter school movement should not be underestimated. For-profit companies should be barred from managing public charter schools. Currently in East Harlem, the many small public schools of choice that Deborah Meier speaks so highly of are struggling to retain any shred of autonomy in a system increasingly concerned with "accountability." Progressives must not forget/ignore/betray the schools and educators that are successful in integrating the demands of parents, the needs of students and the craft of teachers in healthy, intellectually rigorous academic communities located amid a largely dysfunctional system. These schools and school communities should not merely be applauded--they should be replicated and used as the basic unit of a community-based structure for urban school systems.
As a parent of three children educated on Arizona's rural southern border, I have been forced to conclude that the only hope for public schools is the kind of rigorous standards recently imposed by our ultraconservative legislature. Without them, our children will see more programs like "Place Based Education," funded by Disney. What next? Pepsico funding nutrition classes? I would like to see our children learn how to read and understand, to organize thoughts and communicate them well. They need math skills and an understanding of the scientific method and at least a basic understanding of their system of government. Until these basic needs are met, the "progressive" programs are a waste of time and resources.
Some years ago, a teacher came to our high school and started an AP English program. She requires the reading and analysis of challenging works of literature and will accept only the best effort of each student. The result has been high and improving scores on the AP English exam (from classes mostly of students who don't hear English outside school) and students who have begun to think for themselves.
To remedy the flaws in our education system, we must field candidates for school boards who demand excellence in the teaching of core subjects and parents who will support good teachers by requiring hard work from their children. Teaching from a given cultural perspective will result not in higher test scores or better-educated students. It will only produce more semiliterate, sheeplike consumers, a group already well represented in our society.
As the only person who represents the entire City of Milwaukee in public education, I vouch for vouchers. Barbara Miner's attack on Milwaukee's model redefinition of public education compellingly demonstrates the angst of white professionals clinging to the title "progressive" while denying poor parents the schools they want. Miner claims the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) "drain[s] money and support from the public schools." In Milwaukee's ten years of vouchers our public school revenues have increased from $564 million to $934 million. Per-pupil spending has risen from $5,563 to $8,718. Support for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has never been stronger. Last spring an unlikely coalition of business leaders, advocacy groups, teachers' and administrators' unions, religious organizations, Milwaukee Catholic Schools and the MPS board secured MPS budget increases exceeding $25 million in state aid, $45 million for class-size reduction and $170 million in property-tax-free bonding authority for new public schools.
Harvard and Princeton studies have found significant academic improvement among choice students compared with peer cohorts who remained at Milwaukee public schools. The much-misquoted author of the Department of Public Instruction's early program evaluations, University of Wisconsin professor John Witte, has concluded that choice deserves an extended and wider implementation. Miner's claim that choice schools are unaccountable contradicts the findings of the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau in February. The bureau determined that choice schools were accredited, used standardized tests and other forms of student assessment extensively and developed high loyalty, trust and satisfaction among parents.
The claim that choice schools provide fewer transportation or exceptional education services than MPS omits the embarrassing reality that MPS administers a two-tier service system, severely restricting ex ed, transportation, Title I and other programs to MPS students, despite legislative intent and court rulings that these programs should serve all qualifying children, regardless of the educational sector in which they are enrolled. Miner ignores the most important issue of whether the MPCP has helped our public schools improve. Even the former MPS board, endorsed and financed by the Milwaukee teachers' union, acknowledged that MPS was a better system because of choice's external competition and pressure. Specialty programs have more than doubled, in-school childcare is now the norm and accountability measures have risen steadily.
Milwaukee voters have overwhelmingly supported choice. Both mayoral candidates in the spring elections supported it. The MPS board elected this past spring is committed to a strategy of competition rather than traditional complaint. In the entire ten years of the program not one Milwaukee legislature has proposed eliminating it. Miner is correct on one item. "There is little doubt that many low-income parents...support the idea of getting public money to go to a private school." As she implies but cannot bring herself to admit, poor parents do not want school choice or quality public education. They want both. So should we.
JOHN S. GARDNER
at-large director, Milwaukee Public Schools
John Gardner has staked his political career on two conservative-led reforms in Wisconsin--eliminating welfare and supporting publicly funded vouchers for private schools. It is not surprising that he vouches for vouchers. There is not sufficient space here to unravel the distortions and omissions in Gardner's letter, but let me raise a few.
First, there's the all-important issue of whether private schools do a better job of educating low-income students. Gardner fails to mention that no one has any idea how the public and voucher students in Milwaukee compare. The private voucher schools are not required to give the tests required of public schools, and even if they were, they are not required to release the information.
Here is something in the Legislative Audit Bureau report--the only official document on the current voucher program--that Gardner fails to mention. Addressing the question of achievement, the report's cover letter specifically notes: "Some hopes for the [voucher] program--most notably, that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement--cannot be documented...." (A copy of the report is available at www.legis.state.wi.us/lab/00-2full.pdf.)
Gardner also knows that the studies done in the early nineties--the Harvard and Princeton studies to which he refers--are irrelevant. Those studies, which are highly disputed, involve several hundred students at a handful of schools. When the Milwaukee voucher program was expanded in 1995 to include religious schools, voucher supporters consciously eliminated testing and academic accountability requirements for the voucher schools in order to avoid constitutional problems of government entanglement with religion.
Interestingly, the Catholic Archdiocese in Milwaukee steadfastly refuses to release information on student test scores at Catholic schools. The one time it did so, in 1991, it showed that the gap between white and minority students at its schools mirrored that of the public schools. Gardner also writes that the audit bureau has determined that voucher schools are accredited. The reality is more complex. Some voucher schools are accredited, some aren't. Page 32 of the audit bureau report notes that twenty-eight of the eighty-five voucher schools--roughly one-third--were not accredited.
In the latest scandal to beset the voucher program, a local judge sentenced the head of a voucher school in May to six months for tax fraud involving a previous nonprofit group he ran. It turns out the voucher CEO had also been convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint. The inability of the voucher program to prevent con artists and convicted rapists from starting schools led the sentencing judge to remark that the voucher program seems to be "easy pickings for people who are not inclined to be honest."
Voucher programs fulfill a longtime conservative goal of funneling public dollars into private schools and are based on the assumption that private is inherently better than public. I don't believe that privatization is the answer to the problems of public education, and I'm especially concerned about tax dollars funding religious education. That's the heart of the difference between Gardner and me.