Published Online: March 12, 1997


Letters To The Editor

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Kasten's Take on Unions Was 'Biased Denigration'

To the Editor:

I read with great interest the Commentary on teachers' unions by former U.S. Sen. Robert W. Kasten ("An Oligopoly With a Unique Agenda," Feb. 19, 1997). The biased, superconservative tone of the essay bothered me greatly.

To compare professional teacher associations in the United States with those in Europe or other areas of the globe is to compare apples and oranges. American teachers are not employees of their national government, as are many European teachers, but of local governmental entities. American schools share in the concept of separation of church and state, whereas many other nations have state-recognized religions. (Herein lie the differences in opinion concerning school vouchers.)

America also has a long-standing tradition of public schools rather than private schools for the majority, but in many countries Mr. Kasten used to compare the attitudes of union members, private schools are the norm. However, a significant number (23 percent, according to Mr. Kasten) of foreign teachers' unions opposed vouchers.

Mr. Kasten uses terms such as "hard line," "obsessive," and "unresponsive oligopolies" to describe American teachers' unions, neglecting the fact that the union officers are elected by the general membership. Certainly this membership of educated individuals would not allow a leadership which could accurately be thus described to remain in office. However, the use of such negative terminology is as old as politics, which is exactly what this is all about.

I am amused by any person who served in both houses of one of the largest and most powerful bureaucracies in the world and collectively describes the teachers' unions as a "bureaucratic empire." Mr. Kasten also criticizes the political activities and financial support by the unions of political candidates who oppose his personal views. I am certain that Mr. Kasten accepted political contributions from many sources. Why can't his opponents do the same?

My final objection concerns the comments Mr. Kasten made about the salaries paid to union officials. He singled out the National Education Association affiliate in Pennsylvania and questioned why its director of communications has a salary of over $78,000 per year. The salaries of an organization's officials are internal affairs, not open to public debate. We might ask Mr. Kasten to publish his salary, so that we could ascertain whether he is overpaid, as he intimates is the case with the above-mentioned union official.

A free and open discussion of the many problems facing American education is a must if we wish to attempt to solve them. A biased denigration of those who oppose one's views only adds to the problem.

John J. McDermott
Director of Education Programs
Wilson College
Chambersburg, Pa.

California Office Functions As Fiscal, Policy Adviser

To the Editor:

Regarding "California Considers Class-Size Plan", Feb. 26, 1997: as a former employee of the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, I can assure you that the office does not serve as the California legislature's "accountant," as you state. Rather, its function is more analogous to that of the Congressional Budget Office--nonpartisan policy and fiscal adviser to the legislature. Most of the employees hold master's degrees from graduate schools of public policy or public administration. To my knowledge, none are CPAs.

Also, the per-pupil funding rate for class-size reduction is $650 this year--not $630.

Ray Reinhard
School Services of California
Sacramento, Calif.

Cleveland Voucher Story: Kudos for the Human Touch

To the Editor:

Thank you for your balanced and thoughtful article on the Cleveland voucher program ("Battle Waged Over Vouchers in Cleveland," Feb. 19, 1997). The focus on the children and the families, rather than simply the politics of the voucher debate, is sorely needed. I only wish reporters in Florida could cover this issue as well.

Stuart Brown
Tallahassee, Fla.

Special Education's Problems Tied to Vague Definitions

To the Editor:

The premise of David O. Krantz's "Funded Into Perpetuity", Jan. 29, 1997, is 50 percent correct. Results in special education are poor while costs soar, a phenomenon he attributes to bureaucrats at every level. There is some merit to such assertions, but overall they are highly simplistic and not very useful.

The categories of "learning disabilities" and "the emotionally disturbed" are the culprits in the endless expansion of costs in special education. They are too broadly defined, lack a serious research base, and offer almost no avenues for meaningful program implementation.

One standard textbook in the field lists five theories for the causes of learning disabilities; previously, there were three. Realistically, having a learning disability means that someone, for some reason, is not learning at a level we believe is high enough.

What is the difference between emotionally disturbed and socially maladjusted? Aren't these artificial distinctions? The semantics should not matter, except that the legal system and the federal government have dug their teeth into such distinctions and have created a reality that doesn't exist. This is our version of junk science. The labels have meaning to judges and distant bureaucrats, not educators. They are steps in due process, not in instruction and curriculum.

No serious solution to the poor outcomes and high costs associated with special education will come about under the current system. Until the system is changed, these areas will continue to grow, whether they are funded or not.

The lesson to be learned is that the federal and state governments can do positive things in broadly and clearly defined areas such as the "hard" disabilities, which are relatively clear to diagnose. They cannot effectively deal with the complexities of day-to-day instruction in areas that require expertise in the classroom.

Barnett Sturm
Superintendent of Schools
Cairo-Durham Central School District
Cairo, N.Y.

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