By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Most of the correspondents to First Teachers are pessimistic about the state of education in the United States. It is easy to see why. There seems to be little progress on the issues that matter most to them: discipline and standards in our public schools, a voucher system that would provide school choice for parents dissatisfied with their local public schools, counteracting union opposition to merit pay and reforms of the tenure system. Even so, there are glimmers of hope on these issues.
In recent weeks there have been reports on the web site Education News (educationnews.org) that indicate a consensus to the liking of readers of this column is beginning to form on all of the above issues. One report focuses on Boston Public School’s (BPS) “new assignment policy,” through which “parents of school-aged children in Boston begin the process of selecting schools.” The school system in Boston “will generate a list of six choices for each family based on their home address.” At least two schools in the “BPS Tier 1 or Tier 2 category, the top two levels of school performance, will be included in the new plan.”
BPS has initiated an “aggressive effort to publicize the enrollment process, using letters to parents, radio spots, and billboard ads.” BPS spokesman Brian Ballou informed reporters, “Our welcome centers are open for parents to come in and ask about the registration process.” It sounds good.
Or does it? I suspect that many readers of First Teachers have spotted the flaw in the system. According to Education News, “Parents living in low-income neighborhoods” have reduced chances of placing their children in Tier 1 or Tier 2 schools because few such schools are found “close to their home address.” Tier 3 schools, “where more than 50 percent of the students scored lower than proficient on the MCAS exam,” and Tier 4 schools, “where fewer than 25 percent scored proficient,” dominate in low-income areas.
Those in charge of the school choice program concede this problem. Myriam Ortiz, director of the Boston Parent Organizing Project, admitted, “When you see a school among your choices, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a seat there. It doesn’t mean there are seats available. It just means you can apply.”
Why, then, not give these students vouchers to attend parochial schools in the area? The education establishment and the politicians are not willing to go that far. School choice does not mean complete school choice. Only local public schools are on the list of available choices in Boston. But progress is often made in small steps. At least the authorities in Boston have opened themselves to the notion of parental choice.
There are reasons to hope that vouchers and charter schools will soon be part of the picture. Education News also reported that in early January “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor vowed to protect and promote school choice programs,” including “charter schools and voucher programs.” Cantor criticized Democratic politicians, including new New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for their opposition to his attempt to make school choice more meaningful and effective for parents.
At a speech at the Brookings Institution he said, “Right now, school choice is under attack. It is up to us in this room and our allies across the nation to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.” Cantor spoke specifically of de Blasio’s campaign promise to charge rent to charter schools, which were permitted to set up operations for free in existing school districts under the Bloomberg administration. Education News reports that several charter schools “took over several floors in school buildings that were not being used to maximum capacity.” This was called “co-location.” As a result, charter schools in New York soared “from fewer than 20 to more than 180” while Bloomberg was in office.
De Blasio promised during his campaign to begin a moratorium on these co-locations. In response, Cantor promised to block any such rollback in support for private schools: “Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the schoolhouse door between any child and a good education.” He added that de Blasio’s policies “could devastate the growth of education opportunity and take choice away from countless families in New York City.” De Blasio responded by calling the Republican agenda “a dangerous philosophy that turns its back on public education.”
This standoff will be worth watching. The teachers unions and the education establishment are on de Blasio’s side, arguing that charter schools and vouchers drain money form the public schools. But many prominent Democrats, including President Obama, have voiced their support for charter schools. Few Democrats go so far as to support vouchers, however. President Obama, for example, refused to include funding for a District of Columbia voucher program in his annual budget.
The good news on merit pay and teacher tenure rules came from the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Education News reports that in his State of the State speech this year, he “made a dramatic proposal to offer bonuses of up to $20,000 for teachers who receive top marks on their evaluations.” Many were surprised by Cuomo’s proposal since merit pay has long been opposed by New York’s teachers unions, key supporters of Cuomo and the Democratic Party. The teachers union support was secured when Cuomo promised the unions that they would play a role in determining which teachers would be given the pay differentials.
Once again, New York City’s new mayor disagreed. Just minutes after Cuomo finished his speech, he told reporters he did not believe in merit pay. De Blasio did, however, state that he thought it “appropriate to pay more for math and science teachers” to aid in their recruitment, as well as “for strategic reasons to give bonuses, for example, when we have teachers that work in some schools that are really struggling.”
The mayor and the governor are already at odds, according to Education News, “over how to pay for the expansion of pre-kindergarten classes. At the same time that Cuomo is calling for $2 billion in state tax cuts,” to help stimulate New York’s economy, “de Blasio wants to raise the city income tax on those earning $500,000 or more.” Cuomo has also called for full tuition scholarships for the top 10 percent of high school graduates who pursue science, technology, engineering, or math degrees at the State University of New York and the City University of New York.
This jockeying for power in New York between Cuomo and de Blasio will be interesting. It is a reenactment of the old struggle for power between the more radical “McGovernite” wing of the Democratic Party and the centrist approach promoted by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council back in the 1980s. The Clintons won back then. Many see de Blasio as the point man for a possible new left-wing ascendancy. The tug-of-war on the left begins.
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