Education Opinion


March 15, 2000 12 min read

Federal Money With Few Strings Attached

To the Editor:

In his recent letter to the editor, Patrick Groff starts with a mistake (“Homage to Howe: ‘Overly Generous,’” Letters, Feb. 23, 2000). I was not “instrumental in getting [the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act] passed in 1965.” That was achieved by U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, who found the way to win the political squabbles over religion and civil rights that had stymied for years any efforts to get help from Uncle Sam for America’s public schools. I became responsible for launching the program in early 1966. Contrary to Mr. Groff’s interpretation, I tried to arrange reasonable local control for Title I recipients, but I was defeated by insistence from the Congress that every nickel should be accountable. Hence, the early years of the ESEA were more concerned with keeping the books than with educational improvements. Mr. Groff goes on to say, “Mr. Howe was in command of implementing the ESEA to enforce integration.” In fact, the ESEA legislation never mentioned racial balancing in schools. My work on integration was based on the unanimous action of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Although Mr. Groff is right that school desegregation has declined, he fails to understand that progress has been made through the Brown decision and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, no public agency can force segregation, and no federal money can go to activities involving racial, cultural, or sexual discrimination. With the resegregation that is slowly growing for African-Americans, Latinos, and others, we are now struggling for opportunities for young Americans to know and understand one another.

Another comment by Mr. Groff: “He ironically assumes that federal control can be exercised without being intrusive.” Here are a few examples of federal funds with minimal intrusion from Uncle Sam. There are many more:

(1) Today’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been developed as a private agency helped by significant funds from Uncle Sam, along with private contributions. It is rapidly providing nationwide leadership in the important task of reaching for professional standards among the teachers of both public and private schools. Its governing board, with a majority of teachers, is in no way controlled by federal requirements.

(2) Back in the 1960s, a new private organization called the Children’s Television Workshop was launched with money from two foundations. Funds from Uncle Sam also appreciably helped to get it started, with no effort to control its activities. The CTW is alive and well today, and kids from all over the world benefit from it.

(3) Billions of federal dollars go annually to scientific research in universities and other settings with little or no intrusion into the actual work of scientists. Politics do get into science research at the level of determining what sectors of study have priorities; but within the laboratory, academic freedom prevails, and the government is not welcome.

What is needed in federal aid to schools is a school-level version of academic freedom. Such a concept is currently making its way in the classrooms of some American schools that are seriously committed to professional standing for teachers. Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has taken a strong position that the main burden of strategies for improving schools lies in school districts and states—not in Uncle Sam, whose role is that of a helping hand rather than a prescription from on high.

Harold Howe II
Former U.S. Commissioner of Education
Hanover, N.H.

Dewey, Virtue, and ‘Feel-Good Jargon’

To the Editor:

Before commenting on the essay by Jeannie Oakes and her co- authors (“Civic Virtue and the Reform Mill,” Commentary, Feb. 23, 2000), I strongly urge your readers to reread the Commentary by William A. Proefriedt in your Dec. 8, 1999, issue (“Sorry, John. I’m Not Who You Thought I Was”). This brave voice in the education wilderness chose to look reality in the face instead of engaging in the wishful thinking of John Dewey and the majority of education spokespersons over the past few decades.

Essential to evaluating the validity of such essays as “Civic Virtue and the Reform Mill” is an acknowledgment of today’s realities, sad as they may be. First, Dewey’s vision mandates master teachers in all classrooms, a situation that does not and will never prevail in this nation. The vast majority of teachers will be average, as is the case in all of professional and corporate America. Second, governments at all levels will never fund schools so as to permit individualized curricula, organizational arrangements appropriate to various students’ needs and skills, or an expanded school year necessary to encompass all of the elements of Dewey’s vision. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an education researcher, to understand these facts—just a reasonably intelligent observer not wearing rose-colored glasses.

Wishful thinking, or visions of social justice, will not make it otherwise, and we must learn to work with what we have while striving for some improvement. Insisting that schools operate as if these realities don’t exist is what has been so damaging to America’s students over the past few decades. Perhaps this is what Ms. Oakes and her co-authors meant by their latest jargon, “betterment,” but I doubt it.

I was happy to see that the authors now reject asking teachers to “swallow ‘expert’ prescriptions” and best-practice fads such as “interdisciplinary units” and “problem-based learning.” Conspicuously absent was Ms. Oakes’ favorite, and most damaging, prescription, heterogeneous grouping, which she has asked teachers to swallow for decades. Perhaps in acknowledging that their new vision “requires educators to confront constructs such as individual differences, intelligence, and behavioral conditioning” was the authors’ weak recognition of the wrongheadedness of their earlier positions, but again I doubt it.

I doubt it because the authors’ polemic is still filled with feel-good, nonspecific jargon such as “public good,” “caring,” “inclusive,” “diverse,” “participatory,” “socially significant,” and “civic virtue,” terms that remind me of the currently popular, and equally nonspecific, oxymoronic term “compassionate conservative.”

While criticizing the slogan “all kids can learn,” which as usual says nothing about what or how they can learn, they do so because it focuses “narrowly on individual achievement,” an interpretation that comes as a surprise to me and, I suspect, to many others. And it still refers, they say, to “deeply lodged ideological preferences for schooling that favors private interest, competition, and individual gain” as well as “families who currently profit from stratified schools.”

And it is here that we find the crux of the problem, which has for decades confronted education and the public, and still does today. Are families not supposed to profit from schools? The fact that all families do not so profit can be laid squarely at the feet of the educational establishment. The “research says” that any failure to assure that all students and all families benefit results from poor implementation by teachers and administrators in addressing the needs and talents of all students—dare I even say the intellectually gifted, as well as the exploding population being defined as “special ed.”

Beware of those who seek to define the rules of the debate, for their real intent is to define the outcome as well. When we say that the “virtuous” among us are those who support “socially significant intellectual work,” not those with a strong streak of individualism and the competitive spirit, characteristics that no doubt have been the defining hallmarks of this nation’s flourishing, it is easy to see where the authors’ sympathies lie: “schools that are educative, socially just, caring, and participatory.” Perhaps most of all, not one specific idea of school and classroom action plans to comfort us that the dominant task of schools—to impart knowledge which can form the basis for analysis and rational conclusions— will not be subverted in the search for social justice, something most Americans support, as it has been for the past few decades.

James Collier
Shelburne, Vt.

Technology Spending Is ‘Worth It’ and More

To the Editor:

In response to Larry Cuban’s Commentary “Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It?” (Feb. 23, 2000), I would ask Mr. Cuban to read Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital.

Mr. Cuban’s comments on the value of retaining well-trained teachers, on literacy, smaller class sizes, and expanding preschool are all valid points. But the role of technology in the lives of today’s students is one that no previous generation of students has experienced.

His remarks on the ease of training employees in the use of technology also lead me to believe that he has spent very little time doing this. Such training is a time-consuming effort that is not accomplished in “in- house quickie courses,” but rather over time, in both group and individual instruction.

I hope that future Commentaries will show the positive aspects of technology in education.

William Stites
Montclair, N.J.

Voucher Promises: Advocates’ Schemes Ignore Larger Societal Interests

To the Editor:

Joseph P. Viteritti argues that vouchers are needed to provide poor parents and communities a type of idealized purchasing power, which he calls “school choice,” to allow them to shop around for a better educational “product” than the one offered by the public schools (“School Choice: Beyond the Numbers” Commentary, Feb. 23, 2000). He claims that poor parents, the “clients” of public schools, will finally be able to “prod the market” when granted public monies in the form of vouchers to achieve the educational equity currently being denied them by the public sector.

These market-based arguments for school vouchers fail on many fronts. We must examine the practical dimensions of the so-called product of education. Education is a labor-intensive endeavor that depends on an expensive and complex infrastructure to provide support and ancillary services. High-quality schools require well-maintained and safe school buildings; food services for students; equipment, materials, and technology to support instruction; and administrative structures that permit educators to focus on educating children rather than operating the schools. Current voucher plans do not provide funding for new school buildings or for creating new support services in existing private schools to accommodate the day-to-day operations of schooling. Vouchers fund the per diem expenses of educating children at a ratio that only minimally covers the actual costs.

Mr. Viteritti objects to this funding level, proposing instead that the public monies directed toward vouchers be increased, no doubt to pay for new and duplicate school facilities and administrative infrastructures to support private and religious education. It is unclear what market incentives exist to attract private enterprises to fund these non-income- generating costs of schooling, or for religious organizations, whose purpose is proselytizing and practicing their particular form of worship, to make a large financial commitment to providing facilities and infrastructure for educating the poor.

Mr. Viteritti asks us to accept the premise that the only impediment to poor parents’ ability to exercise choice by sending their children to private and parochial schools instead of low-quality public schools is “financial hardship.” This argument ignores the realities of impoverished inner-city communities. Even if poor parents enjoyed greater financial means, what private schools currently exist for poor families to choose from within their neighborhoods? The few established private and religious schools in urban areas are already fully enrolled, and if under-enrolled, one must certainly ask why.

Can the existing schools absorb voucher-toting students from public schools into their existing facilities? Faced with the inadequacy of existing private schools to provide safe and efficient facilities with established educational programs, poor communities would be forced to depend on “market forces” or religious zeal to build new schools or remodel commercial or secularly owned buildings to convert into schools. In their search for appropriate sites for schools, sponsors of private schools would have to compete with private enterprises and other groups to buy or rent these facilities in densely populated areas in order to set up shop.

As an alternative, poor parents could hope that private schools in the suburbs would accept their children and be willing to provide transportation for them to get to their facilities. How much of the voucher monies would then go to defray these costs, instead of toward educational programs for these poor children?

The greatest likelihood is that none of these options constitutes a practical and feasible choice for most poor parents. How, then, can vouchers be said to have equalized these parents’ opportunity to choose? The educational “product” they seek would be beyond their reach and outside the bounds of their “purchasing power.” Educational resources are not increased under voucher plans, but merely redirected into the private sector outside the control of the public at large. The idea that vouchers for private education at public expense will provide educational equity for poor and minority communities through the operation of competition and market forces does not stand the test of reality.

Vouchers provide expanded choice only in theory for the vast majority of poor parents, while simultaneously diverting needed educational funding away from their neighborhood public schools. Furthermore, vouchers dilute the public’s ability to hold schools accountable for the “product” it pays for, because this “product” is delivered by private providers not subject to regulation that operate unfettered in a free marketplace.

The schemes concocted by voucher advocates for funding private education at public expense ignore the larger societal interest and common stake taxpayers, citizens, and parents share in providing high-quality educational opportunities to disadvantaged populations. We must not abandon our civic duty and collective commitment to educational equity for all of our children in favor of empty promises of expanded “choice” that will never be realized.

Jill Kerper Mora
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Education Week takes no editorial positions but welcomes the opinions, comments, an ideas of its readers. Commentary proposals, manuscripts, and letters should be addressed to: Commentary, Education Week, 6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100, Bethesda, Md 20814-5233.

Submissions may be edited for clarity and length. The editors prefer that Commentary manuscripts and letters be submitted on computer disk as well as in hard copy. Both Macintosh and IBM formats are acceptable. If return is requested, the submission should be accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Letters to the Editor may be sent by e-mail to:

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters