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Voucher Plans to Date Amount to 'Pure Fakery'

To the Editor:

In "School Vouchers, Pro and Con" (Commentary, July 10, 1996), advocate Jerome J. Hanus and opponent Peter W. Cookson Jr. overlook what should be the most obvious problems with voucher systems, all wholly independent of religion and ideology.

A market system requires a continuous and significant excess of total supply over total demand. If a parent is to be able to choose among, say, five schools for his or her child, the parent must reject four offers of admission. The greater the number of children financed with vouchers, the greater the excess of school spaces, and the greater the number of unused spaces and empty classrooms.

For real choice, schools must be up and running if they are to advertise and show their wares. This must include facilities, teachers, etc. If schools are not in existence or teachers not under contract, parents must choose blindly. If schools can reject any otherwise eligible applicants, there is no real choice. Only states are generally required by constitutions to provide education for all students, including those who might withdraw from nonpublic or even charter schools that collapse.

To my knowledge, nobody has advocated real choice, choice that includes vouchers that cover full costs and such incidentals as transportation; prohibition of any extra charges levied on parents; schools that are required to accept all applications from those living in their districts, regardless of type of school; and schools that must provide facilities for "special education," since those parents also deserve choice. This, of course, is only part of a very long list of such difficulties.

As proposed, voucher systems do not and probably cannot fulfill the requirements of a market system. It is understandable that advocates prefer to keep silent about the differences between public utilities and free markets. Why opponents fail to address such problems is beyond me. These market-system problems are much more troublesome than those connected with the ongoing religious wars. Put simply, any voucher proposal that would provide less than the average cost per public school student in that state is pure fakery. And, if it were to do so, it would be a proposal for caveat emptor education. On these matters, we have had lots of disastrous experience with proprietary education.

Frederick C. Thayer
Arlington, Va.

The writer is a professor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh graduate school of public and international affairs and a senior fellow for education policy at the Phelps-Stokes Fund in New York City.

AFT Is Not Only Group Judging States' Standards

To the Editor:

Your Aug. 7, 1996, issue distinguished the American Federation of Teachers for being "the only group that has been willing to take a stab at judging each state's standards for precollegiate learning and announcing the results to the public" ("AFT Report: States Lagging on Standards"). While it is true that the AFT has again produced a fine round-up of what the 50 states are doing in the area of standards, the AFT is certainly not the only organization that has recognized the indisputable necessity of rigorous standards. Neither has the focus on standards "shifted dramatically to the states, particularly as a result of the education summit ... and the resulting agreement by the National Governors' Association to create an entity to help guide standards projects."

Over a year ago, a group of state superintendents and state school board members formed the Education Leaders Council, the unprecedented initiative of concerned state superintendents and state school board members committed to restoring state and local control of education decisions. Such a notion did not spring fully formed at the education summit in March.

One of the ELC's first projects was the publication of The Standards Primer: A Resource for Accelerating the Pace of Reform. The Primer takes a much more comprehensive look at the standards-setting efforts in a cross section of key states and, more important, analyzes why some have succeeded while others have failed. It details the success of model content standards, like those produced (without federal money) by Virginia and other states, as well as those produced independently and locally.

The report, as you rightly note, acknowledges that the AFT does "not attempt to judge the overall quality or rigor of the content covered in each state." Despite the report's usefulness for simply describing what each state is doing, Christopher Cross could be right when he suspects that the AFT may be "looking for the best protection of teachers." Members of the Education Leaders Council are looking for rigor.

Sheila A. Byrd
Education Leaders Council
Washington, D.C.

ECS Report, While Useful, Lauds 'Dangerous' Strategies

To the Editor:

I believe the recent report from the Education Commission of the States, "Bending Without Breaking," will stimulate a vigorous national dialogue on education reform ("Revamp Local School Boards, ECS Urges," July 10, 1996). The report's cry for flexibility is a healthy one, especially at a time when all school constituencies--from parents and teachers to kids and school boards--are grasping for magic answers.

But the report also recommends some strategies that are downright dangerous to the future of public education and, I would argue, our democracy. One of the strategies talks about expanding voucher experiments that would shift tax dollars into private schools. With enrollments increasing and resources decreasing, vouchers siphon money away from the very schools that need it most.

Another option suggests the immediate elimination of all "existing school boards" and the election of "new" ones. Going from one form of election to another is not the answer; neither is replacing all school boards with some other form of community governance. Many boards are models of excellence and have provided example after example of positive change in their schools during the past century. Others are in need of the very changes the report suggests. We can all do a better job of educating our children. School boards can do a better job of governing our schools, teachers can improve ways to teach kids, principals can improve the safety and discipline in our schools, and we all can improve the way the community is involved in our schools.

The key to all of these changes is accountability--to the children, parents, and the community. As local school boards focus their efforts on the best interests of all children, they must keep in mind that student performance must be the measure of our success or failure.

What is needed, ultimately, is for all of us together to be working constantly towards the reality of better schools for all of our children. "Bending Without Breaking" gives us a good discussion point to prod us into further action. If A Nation at Risk was the wake-up call, "Bending Without Breaking" is the snooze alarm which tells us that we only have seven minutes left to take action.

Anne L. Bryant
Executive Director
National School Boards Association
Alexandria, Va.

Christina Hoff Sommers: A Service, No Vendetta

To the Editor:

The letter by University of Michigan researcher Valerie Lee ("Where the Boys Are," June 12, 1996) questioning whether boys actually are favored over girls in school is one of the strangest I have read in your publication. Ms. Lee denounces Ms. Sommers for quoting her findings on the issue, which, in essence, are that boys are not so preferred.

According to Ms. Lee, the quote constitutes proof that Ms. Sommers is carrying on a "continuing attack," a "vendetta" against the American Association of University Women. All Ms. Sommers actually did was to contrast impressively the AAUW's highly publicized evidence that girls are badly mistreated in school with a number of findings (including Ms. Lee's) that this is not so.

Then, oddly enough, Ms. Lee complains about Ms. Sommers' notation that empirical findings (including Ms. Lee's) do not confirm David Sadker's belief that girls suffer grievous harm from teachers' bias against them. (See "Where the Girls Are," this week.) Ms. Lee admits, however, that Mr. Sadker's opinion "does not purport to be" the same as experimental research. This is just the point that Ms. Sommers raised: Is it proper to believe the contentions that girls are gravely harmed in school when the empirical evidence says otherwise?

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
School of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

To the Editor:

I do not share Valerie Lee's misgivings about Christina Hoff Sommers' criticisms of the work of David Sadker and the literature of the American Association of University Women. In debunking such advocacy research, Ms. Sommers performs a genuine service to the children in our schools.

James F. Gregory
Associate Professor of Education
St. John's University
Huntington Station, N.Y.

For Administrator Training, Put 'Leader' Over 'Manager'

To the Editor:

During the past five years, much has been written accurately describing the wasteland of school-administrator training ("Michigan Stops Certifying School Administrators," Aug. 7, 1996). Among the chronicles is ample description of a system for preparing school leaders that is seriously flawed and wanting in every respect. Academic content and pedagogical approaches are regularly reported to be narrow, unimaginative, and lacking in preparing school administrators to cope competently with a dauntingly complex set of real-life challenges. These are the same accusations, also accurate, that describe the intellectually bankrupt teacher preparation programs. And there are few overlaps that would enable future teachers and administrators to understand each other's problems.

John Goodlad has noted that "unfortunately, teacher education has come to be associated only with training and mechanistic ways we teach dogs, horses, and humans to perform certain routinized tasks."

In your report, Carolyn Logan, the director of Michigan's certification program, asks in responding to the loss of certification authority under the new state law, "What's going to happen to these people? Before, we had that normal way of sanctioning professionals. We lose that ability." One might replace "teacher" with "administrator" in Mr. Goodlad's statement without suffering loss of accuracy.

It may seem unkind, but it is accurate to observe that "professional educator" is often an oxymoron. Lack of thoughtful attention to the need for competently trained and educated teachers and administrators has led to impatient public disrespect for the pseudo-credentialism widely accepted. It is not surprising that per capita investment in educator "professional preparation" is the lowest among all professions in the United States.

Instead of strengthening the "professional preparation" of educators to improve, among other competencies, the collaboration skills so badly needed, ideologues and uncaring people are further decimating America's public schools by deliberately qualifying for administrative leadership people unprepared to know, understand, and identify the difference between "repairing" problems and "preventing" problems. Schools need to benefit from "leadership," not "managership."

Michigan's solution is almost a guarantee that student disengagement with learning will accelerate, in spite of the artificial pursuit of higher academic standards.

Edward H. Meyer
Fairfield, Conn.

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