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To the Editor:

Fervent apologists on both sides of the issue argue that "school choice" would either save American education by applying the refining power of good old-fashioned competition, or doom it by lowering public schools' funding base and reducing them-especially those in urban areas--to a sorry sort of holding tank for much of America's youth.

In October, the CBS television series "60 Minutes" broadcast a segment on Milwaukee's experimental choice program, in which 1,000 elementary students are allowed to use public funds to pay tuition to private schools instead of attending public ones. During that video essay, more than once the question was asked: Why do students achieve more success in chosen private schools than in compulsorily assigned public ones?

And, strangely, no one interviewed--including the legislative originator of the program--seemed to offer a fundamental answer, although it was suggested that the public schools would be more successful if they had more money--a notion that probably is not going to generate much enthusiastic support these days.

It seem to me, however, that the secret ingredient--the key to unraveling the success of a choice system-is the fact of choice itself, When parents and students make a decision to choose a "better school"--one where work and achievement and good behavior will be prized and required, and one where failure to correspond to the school's values can result in dismissal from that school--more than half the battle has been won.

If that should be true, then I offer this modest proposal:

  • Every public school system designates two kinds of schools: good ones and poor ones.
  • Parents and students can choose which kind they wish to attend.
  • A choice to attend a good school places a responsibility on the student to conform to the standards of that school and on the parents to help the student to so conform.
  • If a student fails to fulfill the requirements of a good school, he or she can be reassigned to a poor school--it is his or her choice.
  • Each district operates the number of good and poor schools needed to fulfill the choices of the students and parents in that district.

I know there will be objection to the notion of purposely creating poor schools--ones with the worst teachers, facilities, materials, and budgets. But then we won't need to have very many of them unless they are widely chosen.

And, after all, don't we, in the American tradition, revere not only the virtues of competition but also those of the capitalist notion of demand and supply? Why not let the public-school system supply what the choices of its clients demand? That way we will have the balance of good and poor schools desired by the public itself. Sounds pretty American to me-and maybe educationally healthful.

Thomas R. Stretton
Assistant Superintendent
School District of Cheltenham Township
Elkins Park, Pa.

To the Editor:

I read with interest your excellent article on teaching about the Bill of Rights ("Celebrating Bill of Rights, Schools Tackle 'National History Lesson,'" Dec. 4, 1991), and I happily noted the comments of Jim Percoco, a high-school teacher who has assisted us in developing National Archives facsimile-document teaching units on several occasions.

The National Archives has produced 12 such packages to date, including 'One Constitution: Evolution of a Government" and 'One Bill of Rights: Evolution of Personal Liberties," all of which have been well received by teachers.

I would like to add our educational materials to the fine list of resources that accompanied your article. Information fliers on our ongoing series of teaching units may be obtained from the publisher, SIRS Inc., by calling 1-800-232-SIRS, or writing to P.O. Box 2348, Boca Raton, Fla. 33427-2348. Teachers may also wish to contact the National Archives education office for information on our education program, which includes a 'Primary Teaching" summer workshop in Washington, class tours, and regional-archives education programs. They should write to this address: National Archives, N.E.E.E. (E.W.), Washington, D.C. 20408.

Linda N. Brown
Assistant Archivist
Office of Public Programs National Archives
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

This is a letter of appreciation for Susan Harman's accurate and excellent Commentary attacking basal readers ('The Basal Conspiracy," Commentary, Nov. 13, 1991). The 'Talking Back" reply to it by Michael H. Kean ('The Basal Reality," Commentary, Dec. 11, 1991) is the same kind of gobbledygook I have been hearing since the 1950's.

Mr. Kean perpetuates the myth of the basal's efficacy. They are the worst possible way to teach reading, and a sacred cow that badly needs exposing.

Mr. Kean writes that "Ms. Harman insults teachers by intimating that they are forced to follow the basals." Where has he been? I can personally attest to the fact that it is the rare teacher who feels secure enough in his or her job not to use basals. To do anything resembling literature or individualized reading usually brings down significant administrative wrath!

Note that in 40 years the International Reading Association has had only two presidents (out of more than 30) who were not basal authors. That is one way, certainly, to control one's customers, which is what textbook publishers do very well.

Jeannette Viatch
Mesa, Ariz.

To the Editor:

G. William Davidson, in responding to your article on Magic Johnson as a spokesman for AIDS-prevention ('Relying on Magic Johnson Sends a Confusing Message," Letters, Dec. 11, 1991) states that "safe sex is an oxymoron. Eighty percent safe is as safe as putting eight rounds in a 10-round revolver, spinning the chamber, and pulling the trigger."

Without taking a position on the propriety of Magic Johnson as exemplar, I must point out that Mr. Davidson is confused about probabilities, or what is considered safe, if not about moral absolutes. Even God would agree that a mathematically closer parallel would be the placement of two rounds in the chamber.

John Gulla
Head of the Upper School Riverdale Country School
Bronx, N.Y.

Vol. 11, Issue 17, Page 26

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