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Spring 1997
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
  S oundings

Grading the Schools
Sol Stern
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It was bad enough that the parents of New York City's public school students had to find out early this year that fewer than 1 in 3 of the system's third-graders read at or above grade level—a sure sign of educational bankruptcy. But did they have to learn about it from the morning papers? Why hadn't they received the "school report cards" issued by the State De-partment of Education?

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who has focused relentlessly on raising academic standards since he took the job two years ago, produced the report cards to hold the state's public schools more accountable for their performance and to bring parents into the process. Early in December he sent a directive to every school principal in the state, telling them to distribute the report cards to parents be-fore their release to the press.

So what happened? I have learned that on December 11 all 32 of the city's district superintendents and more than 1,000 principals received a memo from Board of Education headquarters signed by Deputy Schools Chancellor Judith Rizzo. It countermanded Commissioner Mills, saying, "You are not required to copy and distribute" the state report cards. My repeated phone calls to Chancellor Rudy Crew's public relations office turned up no one interested in explaining this memo.

Commissioner Mills was not amused when he discovered that parents from a third of the state's schools had been kept in the dark. "We are disappointed that [the New York City Board of Education] did not distribute the report cards," said the commissioner's spokesman. "The parents need that information."

Chancellor Crew and his staff have also worked diligently to keep at bay the School Choice Scholarships program, a new initiative that might just offer some hope to those struggling third-graders. Ever since Mayor Giuliani first floated the idea of using private funds to allow 1,000 economically disadvantaged children to transfer to private schools, the city's public school establishment has taken to the battlements. Chancellor Crew ruled that no Board employee would be allowed to lift a finger to assist the program or provide information about it to any student. His version of the proverbial "wall of separation" between church and state is about as impermeable as it gets—despite the fact that public school guidance counselors have been advising students for years about existing scholarships for Catholic high schools.

The Catholic schools challenge and Commissioner Mills's report cards could reinforce each other in putting pressure on the public school system to improve. Most of the 300,000 children attending the state's private schools, the majority of which are Catholic, take the same achievement tests included in the state's report cards. The State Department of Education has all the data it needs to issue reports for private and parochial schools identical to the ones just released for public schools, including information on the cost of these schools and their students' social and economic backgrounds.

Recent studies of scholarship programs in Indianapolis and Milwaukee have demonstrated that poor children make significant gains in Catholic schools compared to children from similar family circumstances who remain in public schools. If New York parents could reach the same conclusion from the state's report cards, they might begin thinking about why the organization and culture of Catholic schools make them more effective. Some no doubt would enroll their children in Catholic schools, but others would put pressure on the public schools to perform better. Who knows, under such scrutiny the day might come when the Board of Education is no longer too ashamed of its own grades to share them with parents.

 

 


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