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By Sol Stern

A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred

By Sol Stern

Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

City Journal

Sol Stern
School Choice: The Last Civil Rights Battle
Thousands of the city’s children languish in a gulag of failed schools that spans three boroughs. The mayor should use the threat—and the reality—of vouchers to force the system to reform.
Winter 1998

Righting the city's massive education failure is one of Mayor Giuliani's most complicated challenges as he begins his second and last term. Solving this problem is not only an economic imperative for the city; it is also a pressing civil rights issue—perhaps the last genuine civil rights issue remaining on the table. Hundreds of thousands of poor and minority children attend demoralized, often violent, institutions that hardly deserve to be called schools at all. The Public Education Association has branded 14 of New York's 32 school districts as "dead zones," where almost every school is failing. Such failure denies the children of those minority communities the best opportunity they will ever have to escape dependency and other inner-city pathologies.

It is tragic enough that the children of the dead zones must attend failing schools. Compounding the problem, many must then trudge off into special education and bilingual classes, a desert of deeper failure within the already failing system. Originally designed as transitional assistance for poor students with English language deficits and other disabilities, these programs have become dead ends that handicap the students in even more crippling ways. Once assigned to these programs, the children rarely come out. Permanently ghettoized and marginalized, they often end up on welfare or in prison.

Meanwhile, the rest of us pay exorbitant taxes to maintain so dysfunctional a system. At $8,500 per pupil, New York City's education spending is about $2,000 above the national average. According to the Citizens Budget Commission, the city also pays its teachers 21 percent above the national average in salaries and 61.5 percent more in employee benefits. Does anyone really believe that the city gets 60 percent or 20 percent more, or any greater productivity at all, from its teachers? Or that the city's schools do better for poor minority students than the parochial schools, which manage to get the job done at one-third to one-half of the cost?

New York once enjoyed what many deemed a model urban education system. This "one best system," as it was called from the turn of the century on, supposedly rested on the most up-to-date principles of scientific management and pedagogy. Control, from the top down, lay in the hands of disinterested professional educators, meant to be insulated from the pressures of grubby politicians. For at least the first half of the century, the system worked reasonably well to assimilate the children of the poor and of the new immigrants into mainstream society.

What's left now, in Diane Ravitch's phrase, is an "obsolete factory," unable to prepare large numbers of young people for an information-based economy or for much of anything else. The system is too centralized, too unaccountable to parents and taxpayers, too resistant to competition. At a time when the whole world has awakened to the advantages of competition, decentralization, and market choice—when flexibility characterizes even real factories—the financial capital of the world is stuck trying to deliver its most important public service through a Soviet-style command-and-control structure.

The one thing the system is very good at, though, is protecting the jobs of its 120,000 employees. The prevailing rule appears to be that the lower an inner-city school sinks, the more its adult employees can command in extra funds and new jobs. (Accordingly, Newark's and Washington, D.C.'s schools, which do even worse than New York's, spend between $1,000 and $2,000 more per pupil.) Occasional media exposés of waste and mismanagement miss the larger picture of institutional corruption: this is a system that lives on padding the payroll with more and more bureaucratic titles and jobs unrelated to the task of actually teaching children.

Mayor Giuliani's first-term record on battling the education behemoth was mixed. There were a few glorious moments, when he refused to accept the self-serving explanations for massive school failure that the education interest groups put forth—namely, that the system was "underfunded" or "lacked resources." Instead, he suggested that the failure stemmed more from the absence of competition and choice in public education. He also discomforted the public education establishment, rival politicians, and the New York Times by praising the truly underfunded Catholic schools for their superb record of educating minority children. In the mayor's analysis, what made the Catholic system distinctive were the principles of school autonomy, choice, and accountability to parents. Despite the relative penury of their schools, such an outlook inspired principals and teachers to extraordinary levels of effort.

Mayor Giuliani then stepped even more dramatically outside the city's conventional political discourse about education by enthusiastically supporting the School Choice Scholarship program, a new private initiative offering private and parochial school scholarships to 1,300 poor children trapped in failing city schools. Political leaders, he appeared to be saying, should be fighting to make sure that poor children receive a decent education by any means possible, even if it requires stepping away from the government agency that clearly has shown itself incapable of providing that education.

At one point the mayor went so far as to say that he would support using public funds for means-tested scholarships, though when the education establishment went ballistic, he quickly retreated. Nevertheless, he surely understood that if the large-scale private voucher program with which he actively aligned himself (by appearing at every one of the group's press conferences) succeeded, that success would inevitably advance the case for tax-funded vouchers. So in this respect he was sending a powerful, iconoclastic message about education: that competition was a good thing, even in education, and that all children—not merely the children of the middle class—had the right to escape from the government education monopoly when it didn't deliver the goods.

But on too many other occasions the mayor accommodated the same monopoly system's special interests. During the recent campaign, for instance, he seemed to accept his opponent's premise that "caring" meant throwing more money at a dysfunctional system. Thus, among the hundreds of millions of dollars in election-year goodies the mayor presented to the Board of Education was a $50 million allocation for new books. The check went to the same Bureau of Supplies that an official investigation had found to be a cesspool of corruption and that was paying significantly higher prices for books than those charged by retail bookstores.

The most disappointing moment of Giuliani's first term, though, came in 1996, when he concluded a retrograde labor agreement with the powerful United Federation of Teachers. The contract perpetuates the rules-driven, bureaucratic straitjacket that imprisons every school in the city. It also raises to even more absurd levels one of the basic operating principles of the system—that teachers get to spend less and less time with children, yet receive more and more money. This "We Don't Do Windows" contract consists in part of a long list of duties—from supervising children in the schoolyard to conducting homeroom classes—that teachers once willingly performed but that principals are now forbidden to ask them to do.

What accounts for these seemingly contradictory strands in Giuliani's education policies? Political calculations clearly played a part. Yet another possible explanation exists: the mayor is genuinely torn between two conflicting instincts. One part of him appears convinced that competition and greater choice can improve government services—even education. But then there is Rudy Giuliani the centralizer, who prefers to run all things from City Hall.

After all, centralized command and control is the organizational strategy that worked so well in his most spectacular first-term accomplishment, crime reduction. The police department operates like a military organization, with a chain of command running from the Giuliani City Hall to the commissioner's office down to every precinct house in the city. Having put the schools under the charge of an iron-willed chancellor cut from his own cloth, Rudy Giuliani may now believe that Chancellor Rudy Crew can improve individual schools by barking out orders from Board of Ed headquarters at 110 Livingston Street. But a school is not a precinct house. Schools work best when they enjoy autonomy and have strong leaders who have the authority to determine the best approach to improving student performance and who are held accountable for results.

No one but the mayor (and maybe not even he) knows for sure which of these two radically different approaches to education reform—command and control, or competition and school autonomy—will guide him through the next four years. What is certain is that the stakes are extremely high. The city cannot maintain its present level of prosperity when so many children either don't graduate from high school or come out of school without the skills needed to become productive adults. Nor, in the long run, can the city retain its middle class unless it increases the number of acceptable schools.

As he formulates his education reform strategy, the mayor would do well to think nationally as well as locally. Emerging from other inner-city communities with their own "dead zones," the outline of a new national urban education reform movement is growing distinct. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., the movement is trying to win for minority families a greater degree of the educational choice that the middle class takes for granted. Empowering the poor with school choice through vouchers—public money that they can use in accredited private schools—helps some children immediately by liberating them from failing public schools. But there is also good reason to believe that the threat of losing its children will force the monopoly public education system to become more responsive to parents and taxpayers and make some of the necessary changes that lead to public school improvement. Thus, for example, in states where support for a voucher system has been strong, it has been easier for school reformers to get legislation authorizing the creation of independent charter schools within the public school system and to get modification of teacher tenure rules. And last year, when philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered to pay private school tuition for all children attending one of the worst public schools in Albany, the education authorities immediately installed a dynamic new principal at the failing school and anxiously instituted a host of other programs to try to get the school back on track.

The national movement for school choice is now truly bipartisan and multiracial. It includes Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a white Republican, and former superintendent of Milwaukee schools Howard Fuller, a black Democrat. The Republican governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson, recently persuaded his Democratic-controlled State Legislature to pass a bill authorizing education tax credits for parochial schools. A significant bipartisan bloc of school choice proponents has arisen in the U.S. Congress. Fueled by growing anger over the performance of public schools in the minority community, the choice movement will continue to grow. Numerous recent public-opinion polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of blacks (including, according to the Empire State Survey on Education, 61 percent in New York State) now support some form of publicly funded tuition vouchers that would allow them to send their children to private or parochial schools.

Thus, Mayor Giuliani has a unique and historic opportunity, not only to begin the task of restructuring the city's public education system but also to influence powerfully the emerging national debate on education reform. For both reasons, City Journal believes that Mayor Giuliani should make school choice a centerpiece of his education reform strategy.

The mayor should, of course, continue to support the privately funded voucher plans. But the moment is right to cross the Rubicon and announce his support for tax-supported, means-tested vouchers for poor children stuck in New York City's failing schools. He should do this because it is the right thing, the moral thing, to do. As the writer Jonathan Rauch put it in a recent New Republic article: "Why should the poor be denied more control over their most important means of social advancement, when soccer moms and latte-drinkers take for granted that they can buy their way out of a school (or a school district) that abuses or annoys them?" The mayor could make this argument resonate powerfully in New York, particularly in the educational dead zones.

Mayor Giuliani should support school choice because it also happens to be the smart thing to do politically. It is an issue that used to attract big-city Democrats, until the teachers' unions captured the Democratic Party. Now it's just waiting to be grabbed by the popular mayor of the country's premier city looking to have a national political impact as an education innovator.

Mayor Giuliani already has considerable political capital invested in this idea through his involvement with the private School Choice Scholarship program, which, despite grumbling from education officials and the teachers' union, has won favorable press coverage and clearly has helped the mayor in the minority community. When, last spring, he gave a stirring speech about the importance of a good education to the 1,300 winners (out of 22,000 applicants) of the scholarship lottery—most of them blacks and Hispanics from the educational dead zones—he received a standing ovation.

No doubt the mayor will hear much cautionary advice from within his own inner circle, from the public education establishment, and even from parts of the business community, warning that, despite its apparent popularity in the black community, school choice remains a marginal and politically risky policy in a city like New York. Why should he take such risks when he doesn't even have the power to implement publicly funded vouchers anyway? On the other hand, advisors will say, thanks to the new school governance law and his excellent relationship with Chancellor Rudy Crew, the mayor does have more power over the day-to-day operations of the central Board of Education than did previous mayors. Thus he'll be urged—and sorely tempted—to build a national political reputation as an "education mayor" by trying to raise school performance dramatically through top-down initiatives dictated from City Hall and 110 Livingston Street.

The problem is that the 110 Livingston Street strategy is just as risky as the voucher approach. After all, top-down reforms have been tried in New York City for decades—without any transformative effect at all. What are the odds that they will suddenly work now? Rudy Crew may be a take-no-prisoners administrator, but so was Joe Fernandez. Where are you now, Joe Fernandez?

True, only the State Legislature and the Board of Regents can authorize even a limited publicly funded voucher experiment, and the teachers' unions and other interest groups would immediately challenge in the courts any voucher bill passed. But that shouldn't stop Mayor Giuliani from campaigning for choice, any more than the fact that the federal government sets immigration policy deterred him from becoming a national champion of new immigrants. Nor should the fact that the courts have in the past held that taxpayer-supported vouchers for religious schools violated the establishment clause of the Constitution deter the mayor. In fact, there is reason to believe that, with four separate cases involving state aid to religious schools now making their way to the Supreme Court, the justices will change their minds again.

But whatever the courts say about this issue, endorsing school choice now, on the basis that it provides equal rights for poor children trapped in failing schools, will enable the mayor to launch a different kind of public conversation on education. He can take the civil rights aspect of school choice into the minority community, with allies like ex-congressman Floyd Flake, a sponsor of voucher legislation in the last Congress and a board member of the School Choice Scholarship program. He might also consider holding dramatic public hearings on school failure, in which students, teachers, and principals from the dead zones would testify about what it is like trying to improve schools under the present centralized regulations and work rules. He can invite comparisons with Catholic and private schools, to show what autonomous and accountable schools can accomplish. By challenging New Yorkers to rethink how public education is organized, the mayor can begin pushing against the legislative, legal, and political roadblocks to fundamental reform.

Championing vouchers doesn't mean the mayor should ignore the public schools' day-to-day travails. This is not a zero-sum game. Quite the contrary: the voucher strategy will give him even more leverage to demand immediate, systemic reforms from the Board of Education and greater productivity from school employees. Nothing concentrates the mind of education officials and teachers' union leaders on reform like the threat of vouchers or other forms of privatization.

A list of all the changes needed would be very long. But here are the four most important within-the-system reforms the mayor should press for as he simultaneously fights the longer-range battle for school choice:

The Teachers' Contract. It is impossible to exaggerate the destructive impact of the teachers' contract on the workplace culture of the system's 1,000 schools. The present document provides no rewards for hard work and excellence in the classroom, virtually no penalties for incompetence or laziness, and no way even to monitor the productivity of teachers. Only seniority earns higher pay. Thus, some dedicated younger teachers work long hours for relatively low pay, while some of their older, perhaps burned-out colleagues work lackadaisically to the contractual minimum of 5.5 hours per day for 180 days per year at higher pay. The principals, in effect CEOs of what are the equivalents of medium-sized business enterprises (typically with budgets of $5 million to $10 million and with 100 to 200 employees on the payroll), presently cannot fire or hire their staff, cannot ask their teachers to attend meetings after school hours, cannot request that teachers report for work more than one day prior to the official school opening. To grasp the harm done to the education of our children by this governing document, the mayor should ask himself how well he could manage his own City Hall staff under similar work-rule constraints.

The present contract runs out in the year 2000. The mayor should start the groundwork now for removing the contract's worst restrictions by educating the public about them. Doubtless, the teachers' union will wage a media campaign against the mayor, accusing him of seeking to undermine, even to destroy, public education with his support for vouchers and his criticism of the union contract. In response the mayor should say that his purpose is not to harm public education but rather to help children being damaged beyond repair by their current schools and to prod the public schools to accept the reforms that will make them effective. The mayor could use the occasion to remind New Yorkers that the union is not only saying no to vouchers; it is also saying no to charter schools, no to requiring its teachers to be periodically recertified, no to merit pay. The mayor could also point out that, with regard to the labor contract, the union continues to say no to allowing principals to hire on the basis of merit rather than having to fill openings with high-seniority teachers who want to transfer in from other schools, no to staff development after hours, no to an expedited process for removing incompetent teachers.

The mayor could then make the case that if teachers really want to preserve public education, the time has come for their union to start saying yes to a new contract that liberates schools from the strangulation of perverse work rules. It should be a contract that values and rewards excellence and hard work in the classroom—a contract, in short, that provides a blueprint for schools that are flexible, autonomous, and accountable.

We will know that the mayor has succeeded in advancing that general goal if, at the very least, the next contract has such new provisions as these: it does away altogether with the provision that allows teachers to transfer to schools based on their seniority in the system; it creates mechanisms to monitor the work done by teachers beyond the six-hour school day; it pays teachers according to merit; it allows principals to require teachers to attend a reasonable number of meetings after school hours and to report at least a week before the official opening of the school year.

Charter Schools. As he campaigns for school choice, the mayor will be in a better position politically to get a strong charter-school bill enacted in Albany. Often started by community organizations, universities, or groups of teachers or parents, charter schools are public schools that operate under charter from the state education authority rather than from the local school district. The charter grants these schools independence from bureaucratic central regulations and from most union work rules, leaving them free to create their own institutional arrangements and distinctive cultures based on the needs of their students. Yet the government agency that grants the charter holds them strictly accountable for their performance and will close them down if they don't fulfill the contract's explicit performance standards. Thirty states have passed such legislation, and over 600 charter schools now operate around the country. Independent evaluations of the first group of them have come up with very positive findings so far. The charter schools are enrolling a large number of minority students, parents are happy with them, and many students have shown gains in academic achievement. Charter schools have become laboratories of reform, and their successful innovations have persuasively demonstrated the advantages of school autonomy, accountability, and greater choice.

Right now a very strong charter bill endorsed by Governor Pataki lingers in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, simply because the teachers' unions and other education industry interests oppose it. The bill would make charter schools answerable to the State Education Department and would free them from the union contract. The mayor could use his support for vouchers as a lever to pry loose a strong bill: he can point out that those who oppose vouchers on the grounds that they take money and students away from the public school system can make no such argument about charter schools, and are hard put to explain their intransigence.

Teacher and Principal Tenure. Mayor Giuliani and Chancellor Crew have come out against lifetime tenure for principals. It certainly makes sense that the people to whom we entrust the running of schools with 1,000 or more children and multi-million-dollar budgets should not have lifetime job guarantees but rather should have three- to five-year performance contracts. If they perform well, they should be rehired and even rewarded with bonus pay. If they fail, they should not get another contract.

Welcome as is the mayor and chancellor's initiative on eliminating principal tenure, they have put the cart before the horse. It is illogical and counterproductive to hold the managers of an enterprise to performance standards when the same managers are not permitted to hold their staff to some standard of performance. In other words, elimination of tenure for both principals and teachers has to be a package deal. The mayor and the chancellor are in a strong position now to propose such a measure to the Legislature and then to explain to the public that no one to whom we entrust our children should have a lifetime job guarantee. When teachers and principals get evaluated on the basis of their efforts to improve learning, not on the seniority credits they have accumulated, we will have taken a giant step toward a more functional public education system.

Special Education and Bilingual Education. Special education has become an outrageous scandal. No one tries to hide it; few even try to defend it anymore. Ordained by court mandates and by federal legislation (especially the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), special education has become a huge jobs program for an army of teachers, psychologists, social workers, aides, and lawyers. About 140,000 students get condemned to this dysfunctional program at a cost to New York of over $2 billion a year—nearly one-quarter of the city's total education budget.

As Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in City Journal (Summer 1996), this enormous expenditure might be tolerable if the program helped the needy children consigned to it (often coercively) to become productive citizens. But that is very far from the case. The majority of children in the program are not disabled in any conventional sense—unable to hear or confined to a wheelchair, say. Instead, they are behavior problems whom teachers do not want to deal with in regular classrooms. They end up labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "learning disabled" and shunted off into special ed, which has become a convenient and lucrative way for the system to pretend it is socializing children from troubled families—no easy task, in truth. Not only do these bogus psychological classifications allow school officials to dump into full-time special education many children who really fall outside the law's very clear requirements, but a large percentage of those children then become trapped permanently in a program that damages them even further. Two-thirds of special-education students never graduate from high school, and of the remainder who do, only a handful ever receive a Regents diploma.

Much the same could be said about the much smaller (about 84,000 students) but similarly counterproductive bilingual education programs. For at least the first half of the century, the school system successfully absorbed New York City's immigrant children. The method it used, as in every other country in the world, was rapid immersion in the national language. Starting about 30 years ago, however, and with the best of intentions, the city accepted a consent decree that required separate instruction in the native languages of thousands of children. The intention of the court mandate and subsequent legislation was to provide a transition period in which the child who arrived speaking only a foreign language could gradually acclimatize to instruction in English. Instead we have created semipermanent bilingual ghettos in our school system (mostly in Spanish) for these already disadvantaged children. Thousands of schoolchildren now spend their entire six years in elementary school in Spanish-only classes.

Though the mayor has little direct power to modify special education and bilingual programs, he does have a very potent bully pulpit on these issues. Minority community sentiment is overwhelmingly against special education, and a growing number of Hispanic parents are also beginning to realize that bilingualism is a dead end for their children, since they'll never gain the English proficiency they need to succeed in America. Indeed, in many places around the country, Hispanic parents are in open revolt, demanding that bilingual classes "let our children go." Parents in Bushwick have sued to liberate their kids from bilingual ed. According to a Los Angeles Times poll, 84 percent of California's Hispanics oppose bilingual ed, and an initiative calling for the end of compulsory bilingual programs will likely be on the ballot next June. Ron Unz, the leader of California's bilingual revolt, pointed out in City Journal (Autumn 1997) that the only people now trying to preserve the $320 million program are the teachers and administrators who benefit directly from it.

Mayor Giuliani can capitalize on these changing attitudes and take the fight on special education and bilingual ed to the coalition of union leaders, state legislators, and other education industry interests that are blocking reform. He can say something like this to them: "I believe in letting children escape failing public schools. If you don't want vouchers to take the children away from you, if you want to preserve the idea of public education, then you must make the system more rational, more productive, more accountable. You can start to do that and show your good faith by drastically overhauling the city's out-of-control special education program, returning it to its original intention of aid for seriously handicapped children, rather than as a dumping ground for every difficult-to-educate child. Second, you can stop forcing thousands of immigrant children into bilingual ghettos, in which they never learn the rudiments of the English language."

These are all fights that Rudy Giuliani can win. Beyond any specific education reform mentioned here, he is in a position to make people believe that it doesn't have to be this way, that creating reasonably effective schools, even in the poorest neighborhoods, is not beyond the ability of a richly endowed city like New York.

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