Rescuing Kids From Bad Schools


A recent poll on “Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers” revealed that only 20 percent of the 4049 full-time public school teachers surveyed across the nation felt—according to The New York Times (January 29)—that they were confident “in working with students with disabilities or from diverse backgrounds.

“Less than half reported feeling very well prepared for the challenges facing public schools.”

There are some superior public school teachers and even some principals with demanding expectations of both teachers and students. I have reported on a number of them here and when I was writing on education for the pre–Tina Brown New Yorker. Also, see Karen Hunter’s column on P.S.76 in Harlem (Daily News, January 29). And Clyde Haberman’s on P.S.165 on the West Side (Times, January 29).

But public school educators who believe that every child can learn are not the norm in the nation or in this city.

As Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, points out, “The typical inner-city student who earns an A knows only about as much and tests only about as well as a suburban youngster who gets a C in the same course.”

And what is the future for all those inner-city students who don’t earn an A and never discover how much they are capable of learning?

So what is to be done? Clearly, there have to be alternatives to dead-end public schools. Some of the new charter schools created by public funding work well. Others don’t, at least not yet.

There are individuals and private groups that provide scholarships to private schools for low-income families desperate to get their kids out of failing public schools. Since the funds involved do not come from public tax money, there are no constitutional barriers to that approach. But only a relatively small number of children can benefit from the amount of money raised that way. And currently, more than 200,000 New York City children are trapped in educational dead zones.

A plan for a large-scale, privately funded voucher experiment that could have ramifications around the country appeared in the March 10 Daily News. The authors are Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood and Ray Domanico. Both are with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by one of my heroes, the late Saul Alinsky, arguably the most effective American community organizer in this century. Until recently, Domanico headed the Public Education Association.

They propose that entirely private funds be used “to enable every child in three districts (one each in east Brooklyn, upper Manhattan, and the south Bronx) to attend a private school of his or her choice. Make it approximately $100 million for a three-year experiment involving more than 12,000 students.”

While this experiment in school choice is going on, the remaining kids in the three districts would be allowed to go to any public school in their district. Some are better than others. No new money is required for that.

Also, “a private independent organization would draw up a complete list of the positives and negatives of the public and private schools in the three districts so parents can choose a school for their children intelligently.”

After three years, “the performances of three large groups of students would be compared: those who took their vouchers to a private school, those who exercised choice among the no-longer-overcrowded public schools [in those districts], and those in neighboring nonvoucher districts with similar student populations.”

One of the most effective raisers of private funds in this city is Rudy Giuliani—when he’s running or planning to run for office. Some cynics speculate that his current push for private school vouchers financed by public tax money is a way for him to get national Republican support for an eventual run for the presidency. This form of vouchers is devoutly desired by many Republican leaders—and includes public money going to religious schools.

But if Giuliani is really serious about school choice, he is capable of leading a formidable drive for private money for the Domanico-Youngblood plan.

A hundred million dollars is not that hard to raise. As the originators of this idea note, “Walter Annenberg alone donated $50 million to New York public schools several years ago, most of it wasted by educational reformers, and he also gave $500 million nationally.

“A major investment bank could fund this effort or a major foundation.” Or a pool formed by rich individuals, of whom there are many in this city.

After three years, “The public schools in the three choice districts must either improve their performances or lose students to schools that do… The private schools that acquire new students must prove they can do a better job than public schools of educating large numbers of boys and girls…

“And schools in the adjacent nonchoice districts must improve their performances so that the public school system proves it has both the ability to serve poor families well and the will to revitalize the dead zones.”

Caution: no subsequent reforms arising from this test program should be allowed to include public money for religious schools.

If this experiment happens, and it can, “New York would be the site of a unique national test of ways to break the cycle of education failure in our cities. The results would silence either the knee-jerk defenders of ailing public schools or the knee-jerk promoters of simple market solutions to complex public and social problems.”

If Giuliani won’t abandon his publicly funded voucher program, which will lose in the courts, who will join with Domanico and Youngblood to liberate more than 200,000 New York City children from schools that teach them they are dumb?

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