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Autumn 1996
 
City Journal Autumn 1996.
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Kudos for Catholic Schools

To the editor:
Sol Stern's "The Invisible Miracle of Catholic Schools" [Summer 1996] nicely summarizes the strengths of the Catholic schools and their contribution to the inner-city areas of New York. We are grateful to him for his honest, balanced report.

As Mr. Stern says so well, our administrators and teachers believe that all children can learn, and we expect that they will. This expectation stimulates them to do their best and encourages them to respond to lessons.

We see ourselves as a major factor in the city's quality of life. Throughout their time in school, our students are part of community efforts to strengthen their neighborhoods and to help the less fortunate. And we provide New York's businesses with workers who come prepared academically and who know responsibility to tasks and discipline of effort.

We welcome any opportunity to share what we have learned during our 191 years of educating children in New York City. A dialogue with the administrators of the public schools would benefit us both. They need only call.

Dr. Catherine T. Hickey
Superintendent of Schools
Archdiocese of New York
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
Thank you for Sol Stern's outstanding article. His cogent presentation of the meaning and message of Catholic education is a genuine affirmation for those of us who work in these schools and have long believed in their unique benefits.

Mr. Stern rightly concludes that Catholic schools enhance the lives of young people, especially poor children, in a real and tangible way—and for considerably less money than the public schools. Here in Buffalo and throughout New York State, Catholic-school students outperform their public and private school counterparts in statewide tests in reading, math, and writing at every grade level for which these tests are administered. And while the cost for public school education in the state is conservatively estimated at $7,845 per student, the average cost for an elementary student in the Diocese of Buffalo is $1,662. Catholic schools thus save western New York taxpayers some $194 million each year.

Mr. Stern mentioned the important comparative study of public, private, and parochial education conducted by James Coleman and his colleagues. Dr. Coleman observed that Catholic schools possessed 11 social capital" in all the relationships essential to education: teacher to teacher, teacher to student, teacher to administrator, and teacher to parents. When asked to explain these schools' success, he said, "Stability and community are the key factors in education, and Catholic schools have them."

That is exactly what Mr. Stern experienced firsthand.

Robert R. Bimonte, FSC
Superintendent of Catholic Education
Buffalo, N.Y.

To the editor:
Sol Stern's article is the best summary of Catholic schools I've seen. He properly focuses on the effect of these schools in the inner city, since it is minority students who have benefited most from them. I saw this for myself when I worked in a Catholic school in Spanish Harlem: our kids succeeded precisely because teachers were as committed as they were autonomous, and the standards for curriculum and conduct were high. None of this had anything to do with money.

If there is one aspect of Catholic schools that Mr. Stern did not address, it is the importance of grounding morality in religion. It is one thing for teachers to tell students that cheating and violence are wrong, quite another to say that such actions offend God's law. That is why public schools, try as they may, will never be any match for Catholic schools.

William A. Donohue
President Catholic League
New York, N.Y.
 

The Truth About Special Ed

To the editor:
Kay S. Hymowitz simply seems uninterested in the truth about special education ["Special Ed: Kids Go In, But They Don't Come Out," Summer 1996]. At Advocates for Children of New York, we know better than most the many flaws of the special-education system. But we also remember how children with disabilities were denied educational opportunity before the courts enforced the mandates of state law, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and the Jose P. consent decree.

In December 1979, when the parties agreed to the Jose P. judgment, over 12,000 children with special needs who were entitled by state and federal law to be in the New York City public schools were instead on waiting lists. Our public school system had spent over four years allegedly working to comply with the law, and this was the dismal result. Jose P. forced the school system to begin to deliver educational services more effectively to the affected children. Ms. Hymowitz appears to believe that it was more acceptable to exclude these children with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and other special needs from our public schools.

Ms. Hymowitz fails to cite the many benefits that the Jose P. litigation bestowed on students with special needs in our public schools. Jose P. drastically shortened the period between the recommendation for services and their delivery, brought the evaluation process to the school level, made appropriate instructional materials and supportive technology more available, and promoted access to school facilities.

Unfortunately, Ms. Hymowitz feels compelled to stereotype all special-education students as "unkempt and overtired," with their "homework undone," and to make the representative parent of a special-education student "unmarried, with three younger children, and looking for a job." She also stereotypes special-education paraprofessionals as people who "arrive cracking gum, the men in gym shorts and T-shirts, the women in tiny skirts and blouses with eye-popping cleavage."

Special education in New York City must be reformed to provide services more efficiently while avoiding inappropriate special-education placements. These changes, however, must by driven by a desire to create an intelligent, effective system for delivering educational services to children with special needs and not by a transparent agenda to withdraw government intervention where it is warranted.

Galen D. Kirkland
Executive Director
Advocates for Children of New York
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the editor:
In her article on special education, Kay S. Hymowitz is so distracted by the sour grapes of the city government's unsuccessful lawyers and anonymous bureaucrats that she misses some of the main points. First, special education is so large and expensive in New York City substantially because of the unwise decisions of successive mayors to strip public schools of the support services (reading teachers, counselors, and so forth) that had helped at-risk students stay in regular classes. Without these services, students are sent to special education by educators who lack any other way to provide help.

Second, Ms. Hymowitz is upset that so much money is spent doing formal evaluations. But she gets this issue backward. She says that the idea of "informal assessment" getting counseling or tutoring for a child without legal formalities—was "repudiated" in negotiations in the Jose P. case. In fact, the Jose P. lawyers supported informal assessment, but the city refused to pay for it, and the federal court declined to force the city to implement it.

Finally, most of special education's problems have the same source as general education's: poor management. Board of Education administrators are almost never held responsible for failing and then fired; instead, they are given "technical assistance" or kicked upstairs. This failure also has a political origin: Republican and Democratic politicians who are more anxious to protect the jobs of their supporters than to provide an appropriate education for the heavily poor and minority students in the New York City public schools. These politicians and their supporters seek, instead, to balance budgets on the backs of students whose problems they see as hopeless because they are, in Ms. Hymowitz's words, "more cultural than organic."

Until the current climate of political meanness to vulnerable people abates and New Yorkers can join in advancing creative solutions to the sometimes difficult problems of special education, students with disabilities and their parents will continue to need good lawyers to protect their rights.

John C. (Chip) Gray
Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the editor:
Kay S. Hymowitz provides an excellent history of special education in New York City over the past 20 years. As someone who was involved in much of the policy making in this area from 1978 until 1990, 1 can say that she really captures a feel for what went on.

A few additional points:

By the late 1980s almost one third of the active membership of the United Federation of Teachers—over 23,000 members—were working in special education. This included teachers, paraprofessionals, social workers, evaluators, and psychologists, and meant a large infusion of membership dues for the teachers' union.

The UFT is one of the key reasons that the Board of Education did not seriously consider court receivership for special education, an option chosen by authorities in Boston. Though this would have meant an even greater loss of local control—not a desirable result—a judge would have been able to cut through regulations in a way the city could not. Most important, under court receivership, the special-education union contract would have been overridden.

Ms. Hymowitz might have said even more about the pervasive micromanagement of the plaintiffs in Jose P. and how it drew energy from real educational needs. Plaintiffs' lawyers were far more concerned with seeing that teachers filed their monthly reports and that services were delivered exactly on time than with ensuring that students were actually making progress.

I should also emphasize that some of the finest education and services for handicapped youngsters are provided by staff in the New York City public schools, Particular note should be made of District 75, where the most seriously handicapped students are served.

Bernard S. Zemsky
Former Special Assistant for Special Education
United Federation of Teachers
Yonkers, N.Y.

To the editor:
There is yet another way, in addition to those cited by Kay S. Hymowitz, that middle-class parents have learned to tap into special-ed funds for the benefit of their progeny.

A few years ago, at the elite New York City public high school where I worked as a guidance counselor for many years, parents began demanding that their children be evaluated for getting extra time to take tests. Each year the number of requests increased, and the law required that we comply with them. Most of the students were high achievers, and the requests were usually timed so that they might have extra time on their College Boards.

Parents could provide documentation from a private evaluator or have the School-Based Support Team—the local coordinator of special education perform the evaluation. The results were then forwarded to the local Committee for the Handicapped for further evaluation. All this came, of course, at considerable public expense.

Frederic Wile
New York, N.Y.

Kay S. Hymowitz responds:
When I began looking into special education in New York City, I assumed, like most of the uninitiated, that I would be looking at a program for children with disabilities as ordinarily understood: the blind, the deaf, the wheelchair bound, the autistic. I found instead a program that labeled 75 percent of its students learning disabled or emotionally disturbed. To a large extent, these children were from broken and chaotic homes. If this is a stereotype, as Galen D. Kirkland avers, it is one confirmed by research on special education in New York City and by the numerous teachers, evaluators, and administrators with whom I spoke.

Though Mr. Kirkland suggests otherwise, I noted in my article that 14,000 children (not his 12,000) were on the waiting list for special education in 1979, that the Board of Education had been tinkering ineffectually with the program for four years, and that the consent decree was beneficial in many ways. I never remotely suggested that disabled children should be excluded from public education. Rather, I share Mr. Kirkland's interest in reforms "driven by a desire to create an intelligent, effective system," though I fear this is unlikely when criticism of the status quo is greeted with such willful misreadings.

When I spoke to Chip Gray for my article, he convinced me that special education's troubles were, in part, a product of the Board of Education's poor management. But the Jose P. stipulations have exacerbated rather than eased this perennial problem. In interview after interview, administrators spoke of their frustration at having to concentrate on complying with the details of the consent decree rather than on educating children. Further, while Mr. Gray is right to correct me on the matter of informal assessments, he well knows that this is a minor episode in the financial history of special education and a diversion from the real source of special-ed bloat: the 32 district-level Committees on Special Education and the countless School-Based Support Teams. Jose P. dictates this ineffective and astronomically expensive system, and the United Federation of Teachers, as Bernard S. Zemsky's letter suggests, does all that it can to keep it in place.

Finally, Mr. Gray makes a point that is repeated endlessly by advocates: that the city's cuts in support services for at-risk children in regular schools have contributed to the growth of special education. But there is simply no evidence of this. In fact, the reverse is more likely true. Money that might have been used for bolstering general education has been siphoned off for mandated special-ed programs of dubious value (as Frederic Wile's letter attests).

Given this waste, it is disingenuous for Mr. Gray simply to point the finger at politicians seeking to "balance budgets on the backs of students whose problems they see as hopeless." When it comes to special education, what they are likely to find hopeless is not educating disadvantaged minority students but changing a system backed by powerful interest groups and set in stone by law.

 

 


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