Letters

Summer 1997
Demon in the Classroom?

To the editor:
I agree with Sol Stern ("How Teachers’ Unions Handcuff Schools," Spring 1997) on two basic points: the public schools are in trouble, and "no school reform can accomplish much if it does not focus on the quality of the basic unit of education-that human interaction between an adult and a group of children that we call teaching." You would think that these beliefs would lead Mr. Stern to write an article about—or just give a mention to—academic standards, discipline, class size, the hiring and promotion of qualified teachers, or improvements in teacher education and professional development. But no. Mr. Stern lives in a much simpler world, and it has a demon: the teachers’ unions, which control the schools (not to mention the American political system) and are the root of all educational evil.

If Mr. Stern were right, school districts without collective bargaining for teachers would be educational utopias. There happen to be such places: most of the Southern states. But contrary to Mr. Stern’s fantasy, student achievement in these states continues to be among the lowest in the nation. If Mr. Stern were right, how would you explain the accomplishments of, for example, the Bronx High School of Science or Stuyvesant, where teachers work under the same collective bargaining agreement that supposedly causes low student achievement in the rest of New York City? And if Mr. Stern were right, school systems in Japan, Germany, Sweden, and France—where unions are even more "powerful" than ours—would be educational disasters. But their students typically perform better than ours do.

The fact is, Mr. Stern is dead wrong. Sure, teachers’ unions, along with everyone else involved in schooling, have to look at themselves and ask what they are doing that may contribute to our educational problems and how they can make the necessary changes. And both the American Federation of Teachers and United Federation of Teachers do. But we don’t run schools of education or hire, evaluate, or promote teachers, let alone administrators. We’re not the reason academic standards became so low and curricula so incoherent; the AFT is

widely credited as being in the forefront of the standards movement, and the UFT encouraged and supports Chancellor Rudy Crew’s push for standards. And we’re certainly not the reason too many schools are disorderly; we’ve been trying for years to get school districts to adopt, and fairly enforce, discipline codes and to run decent alternative schools for violent and chronically disruptive youngsters.

And no, Mr. Stern, we don’t write our own collective bargaining agreements. If we did, teachers would have the working conditions, preparation, and support to spend all their time focusing on helping their students to achieve.

Sandra Feldman
President, American Federation of Teachers
United Federation of Teachers (NYC)
Washington, D.C.

To the editor:
Three cheers for Sol Stern’s insightful article. The piece clearly and convincingly describes how the NEA and AFT have been the perennial and primary obstacle to meaningful educational reform.

Since the article appeared, both unions have reached a crossroads. In a recent speech laden with institutional self-criticism, Bob Chase, president of the NEA, declared that the union needed to "reinvent itself." And the recent death of Albert Shanker, president of the AFT for 22 years, has created a huge void for the organization to fill.

Will the unions truly change? Here are three benchmarks to consider: (1) Will they take formal, tangible actions to make sure that incompetent teachers can be removed from the classroom more easily? (2) Will they accept school-choice arrangements? (3) Will they cut back their political staffs and stop focusing on such non-educational issues as "Indian remains"?

By examining these and other issues a year from now, we will know whether the unions are truly committed to change—or intent on more of the same.

Robert W. Kasten
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

Sol Stem responds:
Significantly, Sandra Feldman does not challenge any of the specifics in my article, including the facts that many of her union’s teachers work as little as 1,000 hours a year, that they obtain their jobs based on seniority rather than merit, and that it is virtually impossible to fire them when they are incompetent. Instead, she indulges in an old debater’s trick: things may be bad here, but it’s worse in the South, where unions are weak. Then there are all those high-performing countries like France and Japan, which have strong unions.

Well, the last time I checked, Southern states like Texas and Tennessee were doing much better on school reform and improvement than New York. As for the foreign countries,

France’s education system is falling apart even faster than ours, and the Japanese are doing a lot of for-profit schooling. And does anyone really believe that the performance of New York’s Stuyvesant and Bronx Science high schools is due to their hard-working unionized teachers rather than their students?

Fortunately, there is now some serious empirical research on the impact of teacher unionism. Caroline Minter Hobby, a professor of economics at Harvard, has examined data covering 20 years from every school district in the U.S. Her conclusion from the statistics: "Teachers’ unions do get more money for schools and for themselves, but the benefits do not seem to trickle down to the students. Students do worse with unions."

My thanks to former senator Kasten, who raises the right questions for the teachers’ unions.
 

The Worldly Dagger John

To the editor:
William J. Stern is to be congratulated for giving Archbishop John Hughes his due ("How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish," Spring 1997). Yet Mr. Stern’s account has some glaring omissions, as well as several factual errors.

In describing Hughes’s role during the 1863 Draft Riots, Mr. Stern has the archbishop summoning "the leaders of the rebellion to meet with him." After an appropriate tongue-lashing, they "went back to their neighborhoods, and the violence melted away." But there was no organized cabal of leaders. On the fifth day of the riot, Hughes spoke from his balcony to a crowd gathered in the street. By this time, the army had regained the upper hand. The notion that all it took to end the Draft Riots was a few words from Hughes echoes the worst sort of nativist nonsense.

While correct in his appraisal of the crucial role played by Catholic nuns, Stern doesn’t go far enough. As historian Maureen Fitzgerald has shown, the Catholic sisterhood developed a model of public assistance that departed from the prevailing Calvinist notion, which separated the poor into worthy (to be helped) and unworthy (to be ignored). These nuns created institutions that offered help solely on the basis of need. They also used their considerable clout with Irish-American politicians to direct government funding to private agencies.

Most curious of all is Mr. Sterns fleeting mention of Tammany Hall. A glance at George Washington Plunkitt’s Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics will call to mind the use that the Irish made of public jobs and public budgets. Not by mere accident or moral reform did it turn out that by the 1880s, as Mr. Stern reports, "Three-quarters of the police force was Irish." Irish contractors and saloonkeepers benefited mightily from Tammany’s largesse. It could be argued that no ethnic group before or since has used the fisc to such advantage.

Archbishop Hughes may well have been the Moses of New York’s Irish. But his people’s journey out of the wilderness was more than a story of moral uplift. It had a distinctly material side. To pretend otherwise is to distort history, not clarify it.

Peter Quinn
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

William J. Stem responds:
Contrary to what Mr. Quinn says, I spent most of my article demonstrating that Archbishop Hughes did not separate the moral from the material. Hughes thought that the values he promoted—hard work, education, personal responsibility in sexual behavior, and moderation in the use of alcohol—were vital for salvation, but he also knew that they would advance the material well-being of his flock.

Hughes instinctively understood that religion shapes culture and that culture plays the dominant role in determining material well-being. Modern liberals do not understand this truism, which is why, some 30 years after the launch of the Great Society, so many of the social problems that it set out to solve through material means alone have grown immeasurably worse.

I’m afraid Mr. Quinn crosses into revisionism when he implies that Tammany Hall played a significant role in the material advancement of the New York Irish. In Hughes’s time, government at every level was a modest affair. Sources of public revenue were few—recall that the income tax did not yet exist—and there were not many public jobs, much less the vast network of redistributive programs so familiar to us today. Irish saloonkeepers benefited from the patronage of their countrymen and Irish contractors from a growing, vibrant New York economy—not from Tammany Hall largesse.

As for lesser points, I am surprised that Mr. Quinn questions Hughes’s role in ending the 1863 Draft Riots. All the journalists of the era, including James Gordon Bennett, one of Hughes’s great critics, gave him credit for being a peacemaker. Mr. Quinn is also wrong to imply that the Irish nuns of the day received anything but minuscule support from government.
 

The War Over Drugs

To the editor:
Theodore Dalrymple’s essay "Don’t Legalize Drugs" (Spring 1997) is provocative, entertaining, and at times on point in its critique of radical drug legalization proposals. It is also sophomoric in its philosophical analysis, disingenuous in its depiction of anti-prohibitionist arguments, and entirely indifferent to, if not ignorant of, the vast body of scholarship and analysis on drugs and drug policy.

Dr. Dalrymple attributes to me the claim that "prohibition, not the drugs themselves, is the problem." The attribution is incorrect. I have said that we confront not one but two sorts of drug problems: the harms associated with the misuse of drugs; and the harms that stem from our punitive prohibition policies. The ideal drug policy is the one that most successfully reduces both types of harms through a mix of private and public health measures, limited decriminalization, sensible regulations, and judicious preservation of the most necessary dimensions of drug prohibition.

Drug-policy alternatives range from the libertarian proposals of Thomas Szasz and Milton Friedman to the ruthless prohibitionism of ayatollahs, communist dictators, and totalitarian capitalists. In between lies a broad spectrum of policy options for reducing the negative consequences of both drug use and drug prohibition. Dr. Dalrymple and I agree, I think, that neither history nor social science can predict with confidence the consequences of total drug legalization.

There now exists a virtual consensus in the medical, scientific, and public health communities that making sterile syringes readily available to people unable or unwilling to stop injecting drugs illegally helps reduce the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases without increasing drug abuse. Much the same is true of methadone treatment, which is widely acknowledged as the most effective means of reducing illicit heroin use and associated crime, disease, and death. Dr. Dalrymple ignores such evidence.

The Swiss government will soon release the results of a three-year, multi-city experiment in prescribing pharmaceutical heroin to longtime heroin users who have tried and failed to quit on at least two previous occasions. Preliminary reports indicate that the experiment has been strikingly successful in reducing illicit drug use (and not just of heroin) and criminal activity, and contributed greatly to improvements in health and overall well-being. Now the Dutch are about to follow suit, and it seems other Europeans will do likewise in coming years. Dr. Dalrymple assumes that there are no benefits of such programs "until the entire susceptible population is addicted and in a treatment program." That’s clearly wrong. Initiatives that undermine black marketeers by providing legal sources of drugs may not eliminate "drug-related" crime and black-market incentives, but we know that they reduce such crimes and incentives.

"One of the most striking characteristics of drug users," Dr. Dalrymple asserts, "is their intense and tedious self-absorption; and their journeys into inner space are generally forays into inner vacuums." One can’t help asking: Which drug users? Of which drugs? In which settings? Dr. Dalrymple’s assertion is simply silly. Like much of his argument, it is a form of literary licentiousness almost entirely divorced from science, empirical evidence, and even common sense.

Ethan A. Nadelmann
The Lindesmith Center
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
Theodore Dalrymple’s article raises powerful arguments against sanctioning the use of now illicit drugs. It is thoughtful, entertaining, and brings a fresh perspective to proposals that have been debated all too frequently and tediously during the past several years.

As a periodic contributor to this debate, I was delighted by how ably Dr. Dalrymple marshals the main case against legalization. As he points out, illicit traffic can only be eliminated if all restrictions are scrapped, permitting the use of any substance by anyone of any age. Moreover, making drugs easily and legally available is bound to increase greatly not only consumption and addiction but also violence and other disordered behavior.

Dr. Dalrymple rightly notes the character-eroding quality of drug abuse and the dismal results of experiments in quasi-legalization in Liverpool and Zurich. Examining the convictions from which the legalization proposition derives, he rightly questions the viability of a culture "that makes publicly sanctioned self-indulgence its highest good."

Mitchell S. Rosenthal, M.D.
Phoenix House
New York, N.Y.

Theodore Dalrymple responds:
Mr. Nadelmann mistakes the purpose of my article. It was directed at the proposal that the free importation and distribution of heroin and cocaine should be permitted. I am glad that Mr. Nadelmann agrees with the "judicious preservation of the most necessary dimensions of drug prohibition" (that is, the maintenance of the status quo).

The success or otherwise of the less radical efforts that Mr. Nadelmann describes—from methadone treatment to the public distribution of heroin and its paraphernalia—does not fundamentally affect the question. But even here, there are fewer grounds for optimism than he suggests. For it does not follow from the fact that individuals benefit from such programs that society as a whole does. Indeed, an improvement in the functioning of individual addicts is perfectly compatible with rising drug addiction, crime, and methadone consumption—a model that fits historical reality better than Mr. Nadelmann’s rosy picture.

The majority of addicts do not enter treatment programs at all.

In Britain, a quarter of those who do are arrested annually, and 15 percent are imprisoned. As I know from experience, prisoners who are prescribed methadone continue to use illicitly obtained drugs. Most of them admit to me that they have regularly diverted at least some of their methadone onto the black market. At best, therefore, methadone replacement therapy will have a marginal effect on the situation as a whole. At worst, it will actually spread addiction.

Mr. Nadelmann omits two words from his letter: crack and cocaine. Here, truly, is the dog that did not bark. His silence on this subject is deafening, given its importance.

With Dr. Rosenthal’s letter I am naturally in full agreement.
 

An Injustice to Freedman?

To the editor:
As a senior litigator with wide experience representing clients in the courts of New York City, including several before Justice Helen Freedman of State Supreme Court, I was shocked at the tone of Peter Hellman’s article on the Legal Aid Society’s suit against the city seeking humane treatment for the homeless ("Justice Freedman v. New York," Spring 1997). The article is little more than a personal attack, unworthy of a journal that purports to encourage serious discourse on social issues.

After reading and re-reading the article, I asked Justice Freedman’s secretary to provide me with copies of the decisions and orders in the McCain case so that I might review them. I was told that justice Freedman offered these documents to Mr. Hellman but that he declined to pick them up.

Interestingly, with a minor exception, higher appellate courts have affirmed justice Freedman’s rulings. If her view of the law as it pertains to the rights of the homeless were so extreme, as the article asserts, one wonders why it has been accepted by higher courts.

Mr. Hellman omitted the crucial fact that the two parties to McCain—the city and the Legal Aid Society—have consented to two court-appointed special masters to mediate and negotiate the bulk of the issues presented in this difficult and complicated case. Thus, many of the orders that Mr. Hellman claims are so unfair to the city were entered into with its consent.

Lewis Rosenberg
New York, N.Y.

Peter Hellman responds:
Mr. Rosenberg is correct that Helen Freedman’s rulings have been upheld on appeal, with the exception of her order to force city officials to sleep in the Emergency Assistance Unit. That’s because existing state regulations, born in the liberal 1980s, were unrealistic. When the state finally issued new regulations demanding minimal standards of behavior from sheltered families, Freedman blocked them for over a year. What’s more, until the Court of Appeals rules on the momentous issue of a constitutional "right to shelter," an activist judge like Freedman has plenty of leeway to impose her will on the city.

I’m aware of the special masters but was not impressed by a report they delivered to Freedman, which to my eyes might as well have been written by Legal Aid’s Steven Banks. Not only did it propose unrealistic goals for building more homeless housing, but it actually had the gall to propose a new tier of "no-frills" housing for recipients who refuse to behave in current shelters. Still, it is my understanding that the special masters are currently serving as helpful intermediaries between the city and Legal Aid.

Judge Freedman did indeed offer me, over the phone, copies of her orders and decisions. I wasn’t aware that she’d actually had a packet assembled for me. But by that time, I’d already amassed over 5,000 pages of transcripts, orders, and decisions.
 

Fixing Albany

To the editor:
Eric Lane’s indictment of the New York State Legislature ("Albany’s Travesty of Democracy," Spring 1997) is persuasive and compelling. He describes marginalized representatives who must plead their case to staffers and sloppy laws produced by weary legislators in an end-of-session daze. Such a situation truly makes a cruel joke of representative democracy.

While Mr. Lane’s case is convincing, his solutions are politically naive. He suggests that committees demand more autonomy. Any committee chair who tried to assert such power would be removed and relegated to an attic office without computers, adequate staff, or extra salary. The suggestion that voters demand reform at election time has been touted by nonpartisan good-government groups for years. Barring an unforeseen statewide scandal, it is unlikely that voters in all 211 legislative districts will make legislative reform a top priority in 1998.

The State Constitution provides a remedy that n-tight work, however. Every 20 years New Yorkers must be asked the question, Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same? If voters say yes when the question is posed this November, it will give New York a chance to craft a structure of state and local government that meets the needs of society in the twenty-first century. If voters say no, the constitutional question will not be presented again until 2017.

Marjorie Shea
New York, N.Y.
 

Code Words

To the editor:
Allan Demaree’s impressions of the revised National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics are both puzzling and distressing ("(Social) Workers, Unite!" Spring 1997). As chair of the NASW committee that drafted the revised code, I want to correct several misstatements.

Mr. Demaree misreads the code when he asserts that social workers ignore the need for individual responsibility on the part of their clients. hi fact, professional social workers are committed to helping people help themselves. The code clearly states that "social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs."

Mr. Demaree attacks the social work profession for opposing racism, poverty, and injustice. We do not apologize for advocating social change and trying to alleviate human suffering. Our conviction that lasting solutions require changes in both individuals and the environment is based on nearly a century of experience helping real people solve real problems.

Social workers’ understanding of cultural diversity enables them to serve clients more effectively. It does not constitute, as Mr. Demaree assumes, an "anything-goes" attitude. The code clearly states, "Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible manner."

I would encourage Mr. Demaree to take the time to discover what social workers really believe and practice. I would be delighted to give him a guided tour.

Frederic G. Reamer
Code of Ethics Revision Committee
National Association of Social Workers
Washington, D.C.

Allan T. Demaree responds:
What is "puzzling" is Mr. Reamer’s effort to obfuscate points he readily conceded when I interviewed him. For example, he agreed that the code tended to cast clients in the role of victim ("a fair characterization") and placed little emphasis on helping them assume personal responsibility for their actions ("Yeah, it’s not real prominent . . . absolutely true"). In exhorting social workers to promote social justice, he said, the code’s thrust suggests that "we’ve got to change the system. We’re not going to change the person." Finally, summing up the code’s politics, he declared: "Look, this is clearly a left-leaning document, to be real blunt about it. . . . I don’t think anybody would deny that."

It’s too late to change your mind now, Mr. Reamer.