Letters

Winter 1999
Equal School Spending? Try Vouchers

To the editor:
William A. Fischel rebukes those judges who impose their personal solutions upon the structure of school finance ("How Judges Are Making Public Schools Worse," Summer 1998). My quarrel with him concerns only the history with which he supports this complaint. He has innocently misdescribed the rule adopted in Serrano v. Priest, thereby exaggerating its role in developments that followed inside and outside California. Curiously, this trashing of a mythical Serrano was unnecessary and even irrelevant to his general complaint against the judges. The feckless New Jersey court and Fischel’s other judicial villains all adopted intrusive legal theories that had been rejected in the more modest California decision.

Serrano did not hold anything like the proposition that "expenditures . . . could not vary among school districts." Nor had "Serrano . . . severed the fiscal connection between local taxes and schools." The opinion expressed no interest in uniformity of spending, nor did it forbid the use of the property tax. The court permitted any district to outspend its neighbors to the extent that it is willing to bear higher tax rates. Serrano is a juridical version of the Protestant ethic; gain is a function of pain. The state is free to create a linear relation between local effort and spending, and it might use either the property tax or an income tax—each locally chosen—to measure that effort. It could even employ the individual family in effect as the school district, allowing parents to value education differently in either public or private schools.

Of course the state could instead preempt local control, as California chose to do in the infamous Proposition 13. Fischel makes Serrano the specific cause of Prop. 13. This could imaginably be so, if the voters somehow shared Fischel’s own misconception of what Serrano said. And such confusion is barely possible. The media did its best in 1977 to transmogrify Serrano into a principle of equalized spending; virtually no public commentator grasped. the crucial distinction. No doubt this false but apparent holding of the case influenced some votes one way or the other. That is the most one can say for Fischel’s premise, which, in any event, seems unnecessary to his principal complaint about those judges in other states who did indeed overreach.

By the way, in designing the Serrano strategy, Clune, Sugarman, and I gave a certain weight to the "Tiebout hypothesis," which conceives local agencies of the state as a proxy for the market. The trouble is that the Tiebout concept lacks moral dimension in its application to schools. The particular good that is at stake (education) is compulsory; most families cannot afford to opt out of the public school monopoly or move to a fancy district; and the relevant consumers are children. Taxes and school quality may be capitalized in the price of homes, but this does not remedy the injustice to those children who must attend schools in poor districts.

All these problems can be solved by further decentralization. Even before 1970 many of us had concluded that the ideal "school district" is the family. The Serrano argument thus was designed to accommodate and encourage those systems of subsidized family choice that now seem the primary hope for education. I am gratified that Fischel reproaches the activist judges, but today the real show is elsewhere and may be coming soon to your neighborhood school.

John E. Coons
Berkeley, Calif.

William Fischel responds:
One can read California’s Serrano decision as a property-tax-base sharing scheme, as Jack Coons still insists it was, rather than a judicial ukase requiring equal spending. But, as he concedes, "virtually no public commentator grasped the crucial distinction." It was not just the media that disagreed with Coons’s interpretation. His Berkeley colleagues Lee Friedman and Michael Wiseman concluded in an exhaustive 1978 article in the Harvard Educational Review that Serrano could only be complied with by equal spending per pupil. The California Legislature’s compliance with Serrano’s obviously equalitarian intent made Proposition 13 almost inevitable.

I am pleased that Coons favors vouchers. School choice and competition are always good things. But I don’t see why he is still married to the idea that unequal tax bases must be the first focus of reform. It’s puzzling—like the occasional liberal who says she likes capitalism but opposes private property.

Differences in property tax bases are a necessary condition for the practical application of the Tiebout model, in which families shop around for homes among school districts. The American approximation of Tiebout’s model offers both school choice and competition among districts, much like vouchers. It goes further and—here is the crucial point—provides rewards for local voters to support good schools: if the schools improve as the result of locally financed improvements, voters’ home values go up. (As a former zoning board chair, I can assure you that nothing grabs voters’ attention like the value of their homes.) Coons’s fiscal reform would eliminate that important reward for local effort. His other reform—state-financed vouchers—would be a useful supplement to local financing in poor or poorly performing districts, but it is counterproductive first to throw out local fiscal incentives.

The morality of the American version of the Tiebout system is best measured against the alternative that is being produced by the litigation inspired by Serrano. The Serranistas’ alternative is not vouchers. It is a system that is increasingly run by the state, one in which bureaucrats and teachers’ unions call the shots and from which ordinary voters are alienated. The evidence suggests that the biggest losers in such a system are the poor kids that Jack Coons was so sincerely interested in helping.

Public Health Quackery, Pro and Con

To the editor:
As a student at the Columbia School of Public Health, I find Heather Mac Donald’s article "Public Health Quackery" (Autumn 1998) a dangerous misrepresentation of public health’s purpose and direction. Mac Donald’s analysis is reductionist and political.

Nine out of ten of the world’s 33.4 million individuals with AIDS are without access to life-extending drugs. In the U.S. the number of new HIV diagnoses has increased among women and minorities in recent years: women now comprise 22 percent of reported AIDS cases; African-Americans—12 percent of the population—make up 43 percent; while African-Americans and Hispanics together represent 66 percent. Is it possible that the disproportionate impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the poor, on minorities, and increasingly on women is due simply to the "bad decisions" of individuals, as Heather Mac Donald claims?

The evidence is overwhelming. HIV/AIDS has become a disease of people at the margins of society in the U.S. and around the world. The connection between social justice and health is clear and has been recognized since the time of Plato. Public health efforts to incorporate context in the understanding of individual behavior are essential. More importantly, public health has always been a field that addresses the interplay between the individual and society. Public health is just that—public health: calling it "quackery" misrepresents the work and dedication of professionals and further endangers the health of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

E. Tyler Crone
New York, NY

Heather Mac Donald responds:
If ever there were a disease that, with a few tragic exceptions, results from identifiable "bad decisions," such as promiscuity and drug use, AIDS is it. Unlike cancer, the path of transmission for HIV is well understood and avoidable. The real betrayal of public health’s great legacy comes from using it as a platform for identity and victim politics, rather than trying single-mindedly to persuade both the infected and the non-infected to act responsibly.

To the editor:
I just finished reading Heather Mac Donald’s article on "Public Health Quackery." It brought back the old days for when I believe we handled syphilis and other venereal diseases properly.

Your public health "professors" certainly get around. Nancy Krieger’s escapades back in 1994 regarding the link between breast cancer and pesticides resulted in one of the top cancer-related news stories of the year. Needless to say, the pesticide-breast cancer relationship remains to be proven.

The place to study DDT and breast cancer would be India. Their population had at one time one of the highest blood levels of DDT, and should by now have had a massive epidemic of breast cancer. This of course has not materialized.

My congratulations for a very fine article.

Stephen S. Sternberg, M.D.
Attending Pathologist
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center


Bronx Beep’s Bombers Plan

To the editor:
I read with interest Sol Stern’s article "No to Sports Stadium Madness" in your Autumn 1998 issue. While I appreciate the concerns raised regarding the Mayor’s West Side proposal, a comment concerning my Yankee Stadium plan requires correction. As you correctly note, the total price tag for Yankee Village is $535 million. The city’s share, however, is projected to be only $175 million, one-third of that amount. Private entities will finance 55 percent of the cost, or $295 million, through business investment, corporate sponsorship, and naming rights. The remaining $65 million will come from state and federal transportation infrastructure programs.

The actual renovation of Yankee Stadium is expected to cost just $189 million and will include 120 luxury suites, full modernization, and major architectural enhancements.

The Yankee Village Plan also includes $32 million for local community parks and $37 million to prepare the Bronx Terminal Market site for a developer-financed regional shopping center. The public expenditures are strategically designed to have Yankee Stadium serve as the centerpiece and stimulus for a large-scale economic development project offering both local and citywide benefits.

Fernando Ferrer
Bronx Borough President

Sol Stern responds:
I regret that my article inadvertently gave the impression that Borough President Ferrer’s stadium plan called for the city picking up the entire $500 million cost. Let’s assume that the borough president’s projection of a $175 million city contribution holds up—a big assumption given the city’s history of huge cost overruns. My principled point remains, however, that no public monies should be spent for a new stadium that would make a rich private business even richer. For the Bronx, in particular, there are far better uses for that putative $175 million. Why not use it to start up 100 charter schools and liberate thousands of Bronx children from the wretched public schools they are now forced to attend?

Tweens Come of Age

To the editor:
As if on cue, I read Kay Hymowitz’s piece on "Tweens" (Autumn 1998) just before going to Shabbat morning services. The Bat Mitzvah celebrant did a lovely job chanting her assigned portion of the liturgy.

What a shock, then, when she stepped down from the bimah, removed her tallit, and revealed a tight-fitting sleeveless black dress with a high hemline, cut very low in back. The celebrant’s "tweenage" friends all made similar fashion statements.

The celebrant’s parents earlier had showered their daughter with the usual litany of superlatives, in particular praising her "intense competitiveness" both in the classroom and on the playing field and describing how much "fun" it is to raise her. About her moral sensibilities, her wisdom, or her menschlikeit, there was not a word said.

As Hymowitz so accurately points out, the herd mentality in our hypersexualized, celebrity-addicted consumer culture steamrolls both children and their parents. These cultural pressures are nearly irresistible, even for the well-intentioned. In our own family, we have put away the television, and we quickly recycle the advertising pages from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It’s not much, but at least it’s a start.

Harold Karabell
St. Louis, Missouri

Da Mayor vs. the Cockroaches

To the editor:
Thank you for your recent article on San Francisco ("Willie Brown Shows How Not to Run a City," Autumn, 1998). I agree with everything you said.

Your piece neglected to mention that Mayor Brown promised to fix MUNI (our transit system) within 100 days of taking office. It’s been three years, and the system is worse than ever. Last August, MUNI introduced its new computerized street car control system: the entire system crashed. Twenty (out of approximately 100) of the street cars cannot even be hooked up to the new system. Controllers lacked basic computer literacy to run the system, but the city couldn’t hire new ones because of union regulations. What’s more, MUNI drivers can take eight unscheduled days off without even calling in sick.

And consider the reconstruction of the Bay Bridge: after eight years of bickering over design and over who will pay for the earthquake retrofit, the local Metro Transit Agency approved a design so that construction would start this year. But wait! Willie Brown, Mayor-Elect Moonbeam Brown of Oakland, and the Mayors of Berkeley and Emeryville placed an initiative on the ballot directing the state to study devoting two of the ten bridge lanes to a train line. This lunacy will double the cost of the bridge and require a total redesign.

Keep up the good work.

Martin J. Slavin
San Francisco, California

Brian C. Anderson responds:
City Journal left out MUNI’s considerable troubles for reasons of space, and because those troubles weren’t fully Willie Brown’s doing but preceded him. One could write a book about San Francisco’s government-spawned craziness, and MUNI horror stories are so numerous that an entire website is devoted to chronicling them. But Brown has done little to make MUNI run more smoothly, and he coddles already-pampered transport workers. (At one point, the mayor crowed that he had made MUNI cockroach-free, which is something, I guess.)