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A Case For Choice

I agree with John Merrow's argument that schools must find a way to teach values ["Our Policy Of Cowardice,'' April 1994], but I do not believe that it is possible to teach values in a common school without causing serious offense to someone's beliefs.

This problem has been demonstrated throughout the history of American public education. Nineteenth-century schools taught morality and virtue from an essentially Protestant perspective and backed it up with prayer and Bible reading. Roman Catholics bitterly opposed such content, started their own schools, and demanded that the government support them on an equal basis with the Protestant public schools.

In more recent years, the public schools have become increasingly secular and conservative. Protestant parents have found their values undermined by these schools. Their concern is not to force everyone to adhere to their values but rather to protect their own children from having opposing values forced on them. Unfortunately, the common-school system leaves them with no means of protecting their own children without changing what everyone else learns, as well.

Indeed, both of Merrow's examples of "right-wing zealotry'' merely describe efforts by parents to prevent schools from undermining their own values. Unfortunately, they had to protect everyone else's kids, as well. Jews, feminists, theists, Marxists, various minorities, homosexuals, and other groups have also at various times complained that public schools are teaching the wrong values.

Of course, concerned parents do have the right to send their children to private schools or to teach them at home, but they must still pay taxes to support the $70,000-per-child public education system ($5,300 per year for 13 years). Our nation's Constitution guarantees everyone the right to freely exercise his or her religion while preventing the government from establishing its own. How then can a state offer a $70,000 benefit on the condition that children be taught the state's value system even if it violates a family's religious belief?

This problem is inherent in public schools and has been an issue in many countries. Most have resolved it by allowing parents to choose a school with acceptable values without forfeiting a state-funded education. It is time that America allowed its families to make such a choice.

Eric Bohnet
Midland, Texas

John Merrow's essay is wellmeaning but a waste of a teacher's time. I'm glad he doesn't blame us for not standing up to various self-righteous fanatics, but we don't blame ourselves either. Why doesn't he offer some solutions? All his essay shows is that, in a democracy, it's not the best ideas that prevail, just the best organized.

Richard Handelsman
Lithia Springs, Ga.

Jersey City

"After The Fall'' [March 1994], about the takeover of the Jersey City schools, explores some of the community background. But I believe that in assessing the take- over of the schools, the role of the larger community and its institutions have been underestimated.

In Jersey City, as in Paterson, the schools are not the only institutions that could be prime for intervention. If there were take- over laws for libraries or recreation programs or other city services, other interventions might be made.

The inability of people of good will to intervene in the school for reform is part of a larger picture of community collusion. Seizing the schools in Jersey City and in Paterson disrupted a patronage machine that reverberates through the political bodies of these cities to this day. Ask who the critics of a takeover are, and you will find politicians and political activists whose agenda is power and control of city resources--not the needs of children. Ask the critics what involvement they had in schools prior to the takeover, and you will find inaction or narrow agendas.

Takeover of the schools will only be effective if we can activate coalitions that work to reform other city institutions. Schools serve only a portion of our children's needs. Health care, child care, housing, recreation, and the juvenile justice systems must also work. Until the institutions are able to act together, with children's needs placed first, we will be unable to ensure a quality education and a quality life for children. We must create the political will to invest in our future through policies that are good for children and families.

School takeover is part of the solution, but it is not the cure.

Irene Sterling
Executive Director
Paterson Education Fund
Paterson, N.J.

Papert's Machine

My compliments to David Hill for providing an informative, eyeopening look at the future of schools in "Professor Papert And His Learning Machine'' [January 1994]. He captured the essence of Seymour Papert's vision, offering readers wonderful food for thought about where the future of education is headed. Innovations in computer technology are undeniably subversive since they cater to students' natural desire to learn and drastically change the role of teacher as authority.

Formal education as we know it today is more a hindrance to the inherent thinking and learning abilities of students than a help. As I see it, this is Papert's point--the educational industry must stop harming and start enhancing the natural thought processes of the brain or face becoming more moribund than it already is. Using computers to refine what and how students learn will free them to be more creative. As this takes hold, what were considered maximum achievement levels will shrink to bare minimum levels.

Although Papert's ideas and techniques may be ignored by the "educational establishment,'' they are not being ignored by the educational customer. I agree totally with Papert that parents, teachers, and students must abandon the system and form "little schools'' of their own.

Joe Scime
Future World Resources Inc.
Athol Springs, N.Y.

Teacher Magazine welcomes letters. They must include your address and daytime phone number and may be edited for length and clarity. Mail them to: "Letters,'' Teacher Magazine, 4301 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 250, Washington, DC 20008.

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