One Way to Teach Your Children Well
June 10, 2003
By Peter Hellman
A good place to start a discussion of the public schools is the hallways of P.S. 87, a lauded primary school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was there, a few years ago, that Sol Stern encountered "Mr. B.," a bent, disheveled man who shuffled around carrying a shopping bag. At first, Mr. Stern took him for a homeless person who had wandered into the building. In fact, he was a certified teacher who had transferred to P.S. 87 from another school. Union seniority rules required the principal to accept Mr. B. Incapable of teaching, he did mainly yard duty. Then there was "Mrs. Lungworthy," as one parent dubbed her, a teacher whose manner was so scary and abrasive that she was confined mainly to the cafeteria. For that, she got top pay.
Having been a P.S. 87 parent at the same time as Mr. Stern, I can attest that his reporting rings true. My own first sighting of Mr. B. in the school gym was so shocking that I had to look away. The wild-eyed Mrs. Lungworthy made me simply want to run away. She called my daughter, at age six, a "woodenhead," and it made her cry. My guess is that, in a private school, Mrs. Lungworthy would have been long gone. Thanks to her union, she was a fixture at P.S. 87.
Powerful teachers' unions are of course one big part of the public-school problem. Another is the educational bureaucracy. In "Breaking Free" (Encounter Books, 248 pages, $25.95), Mr. Stern describes the bloated school-board bureaucracy that was headquartered at 110 Livingston St. in Brooklyn. First-year teachers, he reports, often delivered their required "reams of paperwork" in person, even though that could mean a multihour trip on the subway, because the clerks there might otherwise lose it.
Indeed, my son's second-grade teacher, a spirited woman new at the job, had the temerity to mail to Livingston Street -- rather than hand-deliver -- her application for a temporary license. One of the clerks called her to say that she'd sent it to the wrong desk. Rather than walk the packet to the right desk, the clerk mailed it back. Last year, it is true, Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed down 110 Livingston St. and moved the bureaucracy to Manhattan, but more than geographical change may be needed.
Mr. Stern's two sons went on to elite middle schools and to Stuyvesant High School, the city's best. Still, good teachers were always under threat of replacement by inept but senior teachers with the union and bureaucracy on their side. At Stuyvesant, Mr. Stern's younger child had a superb math teacher, a Romanian refugee who had taught at the university level. "For two years," Mr. Stern reports, this teacher "came perilously close to being pushed out of Stuyvesant by an incompetent math teacher whose only claim was that he had toiled in the system for nearly forty years."
So much for the top schools. What about the legions of poor families locked into districts where the public schools are dysfunctional? They have turned in large numbers to Catholic schools. Decades ago, these schools served mainly white families, who later departed for the suburbs. Now they live on as a last resort for black and Hispanic children, who now make up 85% of their enrollment in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Mr. Stern's visits to several Catholic schools were a revelation. Children were respectful, teachers were committed, lessons were learned. Test scores and graduation rates were generally superior to those of public-school children. And it's all done for less than half the cost. Albert Shanker, the late UFT president, once challenged the Catholic schools to "accept the lowest 5% of our public-school students. Let's see how they do then." The challenge was accepted by Cardinal O'Connor -- "at no charge." But the city refused to deliver the students. Such a refusal is but one symptom of the strong resistance -- in New York and in other American cities -- to the nascent school-choice movement, which seeks to allow parents, using vouchers as their currency, to send their children to private schools, including Catholic ones.
An exception is Milwaukee, which in 1990 became the first city to enact a voucher program. (It now has about 12,000 students enrolled in it.) Mr. Stern visited Catholic, creationist and secular schools there whose students had opted out of an awful public system. He paints perhaps a too idealized picture. These schools must have some glitches. But clearly they serve their students well.
A well-worn anti-choice argument is that voucher schools will skim the cream off the public schools and make them worse. Faced with a loss of customers, though, Milwaukee's public schools seem to be improving, to judge by test scores and graduation rates. And now almost every principal in the public system, Mr. Stern reports, "is allowed to fill vacancies with candidates deemed to be most qualified, without regard to seniority."
Despite such successes, the school-choice movement faces constant opposition -- in the courtroom as well as the classroom. Clint Bolick, the choice movement's lead lawyer in 16 different cases, offers an up-close account, in "Voucher Wars" (Cato Institute, 277 pages, $20), of the 12-year legal battle for choice. "In every case," writes Mr. Bolick, "our adversaries were trying to pry our clients' little fingers from the only decent educational opportunities they had ever experienced." The toughest adversary has been the Establishment Clause, forbidding the government to advance religion. Do tax-funded vouchers, if used by parents to send children to religious schools, violate the separation of church and state?
Not necessarily, ruled the Supreme Court last year in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld Cleveland's choice program. That decision put bedrock under Mr. Bolick's "core argument" -- that "parents, not government, should have the primary responsibility and power to determine where and how their children should be educated."
Mr. Stern calls school choice a "powerful civil rights idea of educational equality." Mr. Bolick refers to "a civil rights crusade." Considering how much is at stake, the phrasing is apt. Certainly teachers like "Mr. B.," shopping bags in hand, aren't going to lead any child to the promised land of real learning.
Mr. Hellman is a writer in New York.
©2003 The Wall Street Journal