Commentary

Unyielding Pressure Is Last Resort for Ailing Urban Schools

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Public schools all over the nation--but especially in cities--are grappling with difficult problems of strikes, decreasing enrollment and increasing costs, as well as the perceived threat of tax credits for private-school tuition and voucher plans.

Many advocates of public education have become increasingly fearful that their communities will "write off" the school system as an enterprise that is incapable of fulfilling its mandate.

What are the conditions that lead a community to give up on public education? What are the consequences of that process? And what can school officials do to avoid it?

Giving Up on Success

A community gives up public education when citizens who are trying to make the system work conclude that their efforts cannot be successful.

The two most identifiable groups making these efforts are parents and business leaders. Parents of children in urban schools have come to expect that the system that is responsible for educating their children cannot or will not do that job adequately without constant pressure.

As long as the parents are willing to exert that pressure they have not given up on the schools. But when large numbers of parents become frustrated by the system's failure to respond, those with the economic choices of moving to the suburbs or enrolling their children in private schools do so.

As they leave the public schools, the pressure they exerted leaves with them. It cannot be replaced by those who remain--the poor--who tend to be less able to exert pressure because of the very factors that keep them captives of public education.

The other group likely to provide crucial pressure on a school system is corporate leadership: banks, corporations, insurance companies and the like. Most of these people do not have children in city public schools. But they pay considerable taxes to support the schools and are dependent to some extent for labor on graduates of the public schools, which turn out the largest part of the labor pool.

When large businesses cannot meet labor requirements because graduates of city public schools do not have the necessary skills and behaviors, they either meet those needs with graduates of private or suburban schools, or relocate to a place with a more skilled labor pool. Likewise, to improve profits, large businesses often move to locations with lower taxes.

When many large businesses leave a city, the result is comparable to the departure of large numbers of middle-class parents from the public schools: A crucial source of pressure to make the schools work leaves with them. The exodus of business is compounded by the loss of substantial revenues to the school system, revenues unlikely to be replaced by the remaining small and medium-sized businesses.

The bottom line of parents and the business community giving up on the school system is the same: The school system becomes all the more unlikely to meet the needs of the children.

What happens when those who remain in the school system--and its sources of pressure--are virtually all poor and minority?

There is likely to be increasing resistance to providing financial resources needed to meet the needs of children who are harder to educate. Children from the middle class on the whole cost less to educate than poor children. They start school with more knowledge. They do not need the schools to give them nutritional and medical services. And they do not need remedial help in smaller classes to the same extent as poor children.

But when a community gives up on its public schools, resources to meet those needs are even less likely to be provided because those with the ability to pay more will likely fight for and win lower tax levies for the schools they have abandoned.

Demands for 'Combat Pay'

As the community abandons its schools, those who work in them will increasingly demand "combat pay" to compensate for more difficult conditions. Increasingly, they lose their motivation to teach.

Many teachers in urban school systems do not know how to teach poor children or are so frustrated by discipline problems that they cannot teach. As the proportion of poor children climbs, the frequency of instructional failure will rise. The system will turn out an even larger share of students without requisite skills to succeed.

The combination of diminishing resources and increasing salary demands will likely lead to protracted strikes or dangerous deficit financing that will bankrupt the system sooner or later.

Perhaps most important are the broad social consequences of abandoning public education: The increasing gap between the "haves" and "have nots"; the growth of an underclass of people with no skills, no jobs, no hopes of making it as self-sufficient adults; the increase in antisocial behavior--crime, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse.

If the disturbing scenario sketched above is to be averted, it is clear that school officials must promptly initiate activities to help keep people with choices--parents and businesses--concerned about the school system.

Such activities include:

  • Accountability for effective instruction;
  • Direction of fiscal resources to in-school services;
  • Collaboration with concerned citizen groups;
  • Prompt and sensible response to parent concerns;
  • Healthy labor relations to reduce disruptions;
  • High standards for student performance to avoid graduating "functional illiterates."

In an ideal world, citizens would be guaranteed such results from a school system. In the real world of urban education the achievement of these goals will require aggressive leadership and drastic changes from the status quo.

In a more perfect democracy, no citizen's clout would be a function of wealth. In this very imperfect democracy it is crucial that school systems continue to be the object of middle-class parent and business pressure.

Fortunately, parents' aspirations for their children know no barriers of class or race. All parents--rich, middle-class and poor, white, black, Hispanic and Asian--want their children to learn and to be equipped to put their learning to effective use in work and family life.

Vol. 01, Issue 25, Page 19

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