Letters to the Editor
The article in the Jan. 26 Education Week on the Urban League's report on public education and statement by its author, Dr. Bernard C. Watson, president of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, requires a major response because of what I see as inaccurate presentation of facts and misinterpretation of motives. I have not seen a copy of the complete report; I have requested it from the Urban League; so my comments are based on the report [in the news story, "Urban League Report Assails Vouchers, 'Basics'."]
Dr. Watson is reported to have said that "many black students--at least those who could afford the tuition--would likely be denied admission to private schools anyway, because such schools are not required to accept all applicants." This does not reflect the information that I have gathered over the past 12 years as it relates to the member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools (nais), and it would not be true for the member schools of the Council for American Private Education. During my service to nais in the capacity of director of minority affairs, I was personally involved with the member schools and associations in efforts to expand access to minority groups. Given the effort that independent schools have made to attract minority families, I think one could make the claim that in a situation where a school is faced with two candidates of equal ability, race might be the determining factor in the selection of a minority candidate.
Dr. Watson's second claim is that the increase of minority students in private schools is a "class phenomenon"--this is not supported by the evidence provided through the annual nais survey of member schools. Approximately one out of every four students currently enrolled in independent schools is receiving some form of financial assistance, the ratio for minority students is approximately one out of every two. In terms of the actual dollars awarded, minority students are receiving a greater proportion of the financial-aid dollars than their numbers would seem to warrant. My impression is that there is a better economic mix in the black and minority students who are currently attending independent schools than could be found in most public schools. I think the real message is that minority parents, or for that matter, parents in general, will seek alternatives when they are dissatisfied with a situation, and minority parents are now becoming more aggressive about wrestling with the financial sacrifice that is involved.
Dr. Watson also is reported as recommending to minority parents that they reject private schools because of their narrow focus on academics and college preparation. This makes little sense. For poor black families who feel strongly about having their youngsters continue their education at the post-secondary level, independent and private schools provide an acceptable option; the decision is theirs to make in terms of whether they exercise the option or continue the programs in their neighborhood public schools.
I believe the message that Dr. Watson is missing in his report is that when parents, regardless of race, are pushed to the wall and disillusioned and dissatisfied with a situation, and those in charge seem to be unresponsive, they will seek alternatives.
A second and equally important point that Dr. Watson overlooks is the growing number of joint ventures involving both public ande schools. The principal beneficiaries are public-school students--many (if not most) of whom are minority youngsters. The sphere program (Supplementary Program for Hartford in Educational Remediation Enrichment), the A Better Chance program, and the Kinkaid/Houston Independent School District special science program are typical of the ventures that are currently taking place.
I suspect that much of the information that influenced Dr. Watson had to do with the current controversy over the position of some groups of private schools on tuition tax credits, but I think the information and activities described above should not be lost in this controversy.
I hope that Education Week will give equal time to those who can provide information that would refute the position of Dr. Watson.
William L. Dandridge Director of Academic Services National Association of Independent Schools Boston, Mass.