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Impetus for 'Privatization' Is Not Improving Schools

To the Editor:

In his excellent summary of evidence from around the world, Martin Carnoy concludes with regret that "the privatization movement ... is gaining just when pupils are making significant achievement gains ... because public education is getting better--without vouchers" (related story). It cannot be mentioned too often that the major impetus behind the "privatization" initiatives has nothing at all to do with improving educational quality.

The most activist privatizers are those who seek to recapture the schools from the clutches of the "secular humanists" who have supposedly been corrupting young people since the early 19th century. At the moment, this efforts unites Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics in a partnership of organizations traditionally unfriendly to each other. They have agreed for the moment that they would like to get their hands on public funding for their schools.

In the most radical of Christian academies, children are taught, for example, that "the cultures of India, China, and Japan are among the oldest and most enduring [and] also among the most heathen," a quotation from a world-history text. Children also learn, of course, that any scientific evidence that does not support Biblical teaching must, by definition, be wrong.

To such true believers, any improvement in test scores among public school students is only more evidence of improper indoctrination."

Frederick C. Thayer
Professor Emeritus
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pluralism, Special Interests Vie in Public-School Debate

To the Editor:

Samuel Blumenfeld's attack on public education and humanism is wild-eyed hatemongering at its worst (related story ).

Public education is nothing like monolithic "government" education. It is 15,000-plus local school systems controlled by elected boards of local parents and taxpayers. As most educators acknowledge (but most voters seem currently unwilling to pay for) public schools need reform. Yet, they still are consistently rated "O.K." to "excellent" by about 90 percent of parents, according to annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup surveys.

Mr. Blumenfeld is also wrong in assuming that public schools can compensate for the failures of families and societies generally.

As president of the 54-year-old American Humanist Association, I will state categorically that public schools are not "governed by a religion called humanism." It is nonsense for Mr. Blumenfeld to make such a claim just because most mainstream American Christians and Jews happen to share many of the views and values found in the 1933 and 1973 Humanist Manifestos. Nine out of 10 American families would not send their kids to public schools if Mr. Blumenfeld were right.

Mr. Blumenfeld would replace our religiously neutral, democratic, pluralistic common schools with a multiplicity of selective sectarian private schools, not under public control, that specialize in denominational indoctrination.

The debate is not between "humanism and Biblical religion." It is between, on the one hand, people who rejoice in our country's rich pluralism, recognize the vital importance of the Jeffersonian-Madisonian principle of church-state separation, and have faith in constitutional democratic common education, and, on the other hand, those narrow special interests that would fragment our country along religious, ethnic, ideological, class, and other lines.

We must loudly proclaim to the Blumenfelds, Robertsons, Falwells, and their allies that we do not need any more Bosnias, Northern Irelands, or Rwandas.

Edd Doerr
President
American Humanist Association
Amherst, N.Y.

'Real Story' on Doyle Survey: Choice Worsens Inequities

To the Editor:

You completely missed the real story in your misleading and confusingly headlined report on Denis P. Doyle's "study" of where public school teachers send their own kids (related story ). Comparing the public or private school choices of teachers with those of the general public proves nothing unless you take income into account.

Mr. Doyle's own data show that teachers are actually less likely to send their children to private school than nonteachers of similar family income levels--leading to precisely the opposite conclusion from the one that he and the ultra-right-wing Center for Education Reform are pushing.

Sloppy reporting of this story lends credence to the false arguments being made by Mr. Doyle, The Wall Street Journal, and others in favor of private school vouchers and other so-called choice schemes--that they will increase educational opportunities for minorities and the poor. Recent research suggests just the opposite: that unregulated school choice tends to worsen racial and social-class inequities.

Edward Miller
Editor
Harvard Education Letter Cambridge, Mass.

Foes of N.J. Abstinence Bills Cite Local-Control Issues

To the Editor:

Readers of your article "Abstinence Bills Gaining Popularity and Momentum" (related story) should know that in New Jersey, at least, many groups oppose the current rush to pass legislation on teaching sexual abstinence. The Coalition for Comprehensive Family Life Education is fighting hard to prevent the latest abstinence bill from becoming law.

The coalition is composed of 35 statewide organizations, including the National Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance Teachers, the New Jersey Congress of Parents and Teachers, the New Jersey State School Nurses, the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey School Boards Association, the Association for the Children of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Chapter of the Society for Adolescent Medicine.

The principal organizations supporting the bill are the Concerned Women for America, the New Jersey Catholic Conference, and the American Family Association, organizations that have political and religious agendas.

Members of the coalition firmly support teaching about abstinence in family-life-education courses. However, they believe that local school policymakers and educators, rather than the legislature, should decide on both the content and messages that are emphasized.

The New Jersey state board of education in 1980 directed all of the state's 600 school districts to develop family-life, including sexuality education, programs and required them to develop a curriculum using the assistance of local community advisory boards and parents. The process has worked extremely well; there is no evidence that abstinence is being slighted and that the legislature needs to tell teachers and local policymakers what to stress and what materials to purchase.

A 1993 Rutgers University Eagleton Poll found that 86 percent of New Jerseyans support family-life-education programs as presently developed, and 87 percent favor instruction that goes beyond the teaching of abstinence and includes instruction about contraception and safer sex. In New Jersey, it is clear that the education community and popular opinion favor comprehensive, not restrictive, family-life education.

Susan N. Wilson
The Coalition for Comprehensive Family Life Education
Princeton, N.J.

Divided Virginia Legislature: Watch Next Year's Elections

To the Editor:

I was surprised to read that Virginia has one legislative chamber under Republican Party control (related story ). The truth is that Gov. George Allen is a Republican and both houses to date are controlled by the Democrats. The Governor and his party are trying to change that balance of power in this year's elections.

Virginia holds state elections in off years, and this year we will elect both the House of Delegates and the Senate. Thus, the electoral verdict is still out as to whether Virginia will have one legislative house under G.O.P. control and one under Democratic Party control. Republicans hope to gain control of both, and Democrats hope to retain control. It should be an interesting election. I urge your readers to watch this state and this fall's elections.

Elise Lindbloom Emanuel
Williamsburg, Va.

Uhlhorn Contract Talks: Not Tied to Performance

To the Editor:

Your recent article on the Palm Beach County, Fla., schools, "Board To Buy Out Superintendent's Contract," implied that the recommendation to do so was made in response to dissatisfaction with the superintendent's performance (related story). As the person who made the motion, I must clarify that nothing could be further from the truth.

When Superintendent Monica Uhlhorn assumed this position in 1991, she inherited a $2.5 million negative balance in the operating budget, a state's-attorney investigation of mismanagement of a $317 million bond project, and a teachers' contract with promises of 30~ percent raises over three years and with no plans for a funding source.

Ms. Uhlhorn also inherited a voluntary-consent agreement with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights that was designed to fail. By 1993, the district had experienced a $126 million revenue shortfall, an amount never recouped. In Ms. Uhlhorn's four-year tenure, this district has added more than 20,000 new students, opened 12 new schools, and hired 1,500 new teachers.

If these weren't enough challenges, she was also plagued with a handful of individuals, both internal and external, who represented single-issue interest groups and a board on which four out of the seven members were unwilling to support the superintendent.

What has Ms. Uhlhorn accomplished? Under her leadership, student performance on all normed-referenced tests has gone up substantially. The high school graduation rate has increased from 72 percent to 80 percent. More than 80~~ percent of all operating dollars now go directly to the schools, the highest rate among Florida's 67 districts. We have the largest distributed technology project in the nation. Every classroom of students in grades 2-8 has four interactive computers. This project will extend to grade 12 this year. Eventually, more than 100,000 students will utilize computer technology every day as part of the basic curriculum.

Extensive staff development and teacher training programs have also been implemented. We have one of the finest research-based programs for preparing new principals, as well as a new performance-based principal-evaluation instrument.

In addition, we now have schools being built on time and within budget. We have a criteria-based selection process for hiring architects and consultants. We have established citizen oversight committees for construction, audit, compliance with the office for civil rights, and school boundaries. Never before has community input been so sought after and well received.

My decision to begin contract negotiations with the superintendent should not be misinterpreted as dissatisfaction with her leadership. Monica Uhlhorn survived four years as an urban superintendent. That in itself is an accomplishment. For any board willing to stay focused on the needs of children and willing to keep politics out of the boardroom, a better educational leader cannot be found.

Jody Gleason
Chairman
Palm Beach County School Board
West Palm Beach, Fla.

Chicago School Panel Lauds Unsung Superintendent

To the Editor:

Thank you for your thoughtful coverage of the changes in governance of the Chicago public schools (related story ). Missing, however, was any assessment of the contribution of the system's general superintendent for the last two years. The board and staff of the Chicago Panel on School Policy want to address that gap by publicly commending Argie K. Johnson for her leadership.

While the fiscal crisis that was consuming the Chicago school system when she arrived has dominated media coverage of the system and political rhetoric about the schools, she quietly fostered efforts to transform the kind of support provided to schools trying to change. She initiated processes to put pressure on schools that have been resistant to the need to change or been unclear about the kind of changes that they might make. These are important accomplishments that should not be overlooked as the system moves into yet another governance structure.

Ms. Johnson brought visible concern for improving the learning opportunities of our children. She came to the city with a plan to focus attention on the schools needing the most help while removing roadblocks for schools seeking to change. While her original plan has been changed significantly in response to concerns raised by local school personnel, community residents, and school-reform advocates, today a very different relationship exists between the administration and the schools. Schools asking for help are getting~~~~~~~~ more of it; and four schools needing help have been made the focus of pilot efforts at remediation. This is a clear reversal of the priorities of her predecessor.

At the same time, with the help of the business community, school-reform activists, and others, a major effort to re-engineer the central administration has been under way, with first-level effects now becoming visible. This rethinking of the dynamics of supporting schools through the system's administration has been long overdue.

It is now obvious that the political leadership of this city and state are primarily focused upon resolving the continuing financial crisis. We agree that this crisis has been allowed to drag on for too long (at least five years, much longer than Ms. Johnson's tenure in Chicago) and it is high time that it be solved. But we hope that in the rush to correct that persisting crisis, the political leaders do not overlook the important accomplishments of Argie Johnson's administration in refocusing the attention of the system and of the central office on supporting change at the school level, where the education or miseducation of our city's children and youths actually takes place.

Marilyn Stephens
President
G. Alfred Hess Jr.
Executive Director
Chicago Panel on School Policy
Chicago, Ill.

Reported 'Assault' on Teacher Was 'Verbal Confrontation'

To the Editor:

We are concerned about inaccuracies in your July 12, 1995, article about teachers turning to the courts in matters involving student and parent violence (related story ).

The article led by citing an incident at our high school; it stated as fact that the teacher was "attacked" and "assaulted" by the student, that the teacher was "pinned against the wall," and that the student "tried to punch her."

In reality, however, at no time did this student make physical contact with the teacher. What occurred was a verbal confrontation in which the student became belligerent and threatening. These actions, while different from those you reported, are totally unacceptable in our school and deserving of punishment, which the student received.

Perhaps the most egregious misstatement in your article was the allegation that the school disciplined the student with a "five-day, in-school suspension, which meant the senior was allowed to move about the school on his own." In fact, the student received a five-day out-of-school suspension, since this behavior was unacceptable according to our disciplinary standards.

Gwendolyn Felder
Associate Principal
Hector Mujica
Assistant Principal
Patricia Williams
Assistant Principal
Hayfield High School
Alexandria, Va.

Editor's Note: The characterization of the incident was drawn from an interview with the teacher involved. Information on the student's suspension was confirmed by phone with the district's spokesperson.

Harassed Student's Mother Shows 'Heroic Determination'

To the Editor:

We were delighted to read your story about Mary DeRosa defending her daughter against sexual harassment in the Millis, Mass., public schools (related story ).

This fine portrait of Ms. DeRosa shows what one dedicated parent can do to improve equal educational opportunity for girls. During the long investigation by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights, Ms. DeRosa acted as a parent for those involved in the other eight cases stemming from the same situation. All girls in public schools benefit from the truly heroic determination she showed.

We are a national network of families and individuals providing support and information about how to achieve compliance with Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to provide education in an environment that is not hostile to girls and that neither discriminates academically nor permits harassment on the basis of gender.

Parents for Title IX can be reached at P.O. Box 835, Petaluma, Calif. 94953. Our phone number is (707) 765-6298.

Linda Purrington
Parents for Title IX
Petaluma, Calif.

'Taboo' I.Q. Considerations Have Policy Implications

To the Editor:

The mention of David Perkins's book and his work appears to be irresistibly shaped by the enormous political "magnetic field" in which commentary about I.Q. has to take place within contemporary American public education (related story ).

The elements of discussion get immediately configured in certain comforting ways. Readers who have not read "taboo" works on the topic of I.Q. (of which The Bell Curve is but one) will come away from reading your account with reinforcement of the consensual cultural delusions that have emerged in the professional educational media about this topic.

The most detrimental effect of this unreality is the notion that there is little expert consensus about elements of the I.Q. debate. Like most media treatment of the topic of I.Q. during the last two decades or more, your article reinforces the utterly mistaken notion that there is a theoretical smorgasbord of equally scientifical and meritorious theories from which we are morally obligated to select for attention only those that nurture our wishes.

A 100-year moratorium on mention of the I.Q. debate seems inviting until we remember that there are vital social-policy questions at issue in this debate that should have been resolved in the interest of national security at least a decade ago. Your story helps keep us in lemming land and moving fast toward water.

William A. Saunders
Manhattan, Kan.

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