Education Commentary


September 20, 2000 7 min read

Vouchers Question: What’s in It for Me?

To the Editor:

I would like to add one more dimension to David Barulich’s “Four Reasons Why Voucher Plans Lose Elections,” (Commentary, Sept. 6, 2000). To my knowledge, no one has yet articulated a compelling reason why private schools would want to take in voucher kids.

Using the “What’s in it for me?” test, we can readily understand this point. The city of Washington is a prime example. Elite private schools located there, such as St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, and Georgetown Day, are not rushing to embrace vouchers. None of these schools sees any institutional advantage in playing the game. There is absolutely nothing in it for them. Their silence in this matter is indicative of their personal apathy toward the voucher program itself.

In addition, even Washington’s Roman Catholic schools, under the leadership of Cardinal James Hickey, have declared their abstinence from any city-sponsored voucher schemes. Unless private schools are prepared to make a case for either monetary duress or an intention to systematically evangelize the ghetto, vouchers make little sense. As cruel as it may seem, most private schools, but particularly the elite ones, do not need the money badly enough to take on the challenges of teaching at-risk voucher kids. Neither do they care to personally save the ghetto with their own schools’ reputations. If they did, they would be leaders in the pro-voucher movement, which they most assuredly are not.

Lastly, we have to consider the parents who pay all of that private school tuition. When California’s middle- and upper-middle-class parents asked themselves the what’s-in-it-for-me question, they quickly realized the answer was nothing. There would be no money to subsidize their already-enrolled private school children. When this collective epiphany occurred to them, widespread voucher support disappeared overnight. Naturally, both the electorate’s and private schools’ rejection of vouchers failed to address the lousy urban schools or the plight of our poorest citizens. It was, however, a harbinger of things to come.

Patrick Gould
Middleton, Wis.

Lieberman’s ‘Friends’ Worry This Reader

To the Editor:

While your informative article about the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, focused on one aspect of his educational record (“Lieberman Voucher Record Attracts Attention,” Sept. 6, 2000), some educators worry and wonder about his educational friends and their (his?) agenda.

Time and again, Sen. Lieberman turns to conservative education officials from the Reagan era—William J. Bennett, Lynne V. Cheney, Chester E. Finn Jr., and others—and promotes their often anti-public-school agenda. The most recent example occurred this summer, when a “test” based on a telephone survey of some 500 college students found— surprise, surprise—that they knew little history but did know popular media figures.

In response to these findings, Sen. Lieberman introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate decrying the sad state of affairs and the lack of required history courses in the nation’s colleges.

Regardless of these findings, one might expect that Congress had more appropriate issues to deal with than promoting the organization that sponsored the survey and pressuring college officials to revise their curricula.

The sponsor, incidentally, was a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, whose chairperson is Ms. Cheney, the wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Richard B. Cheney. Interestingly, a member of the organiation’s 11-member board of directors is Sen. Lieberman.

Given the records of each vice presidential candidate, though, many educators worry about Mr. Cheney and wonder about Mr. Lieberman.

Tedd Levy
Norwalk, Conn.

Bilingual Tensions: Excuses, Successes, and Demonization

To the Editor:

Thank you for presenting a balanced and informative article on the issues surrounding bilingual education and recent test results in California (“Cause of Higher California Test Scores Sore Point in Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 6, 2000). Ron K. Unz, the driving force behind passage of the California bilingual ballot measure Proposition 227, never comments on the poor success rates of the million English-language learners who have always been taught in English.

The passage of Proposition 227 gave districts that were poorly implementing bilingual programs the excuse they needed to stop. High-quality, successful programs continued because parents saw the success. Readers should visit any of the successful two-way immersion programs throughout the country.

Frank Ohnesorgen
Hanford, Calif.

To the Editor:

The English for the Children campaign in California has successfully focused attention on very modest increases in test scores in a few districts that are ideologically aligned to the philosophy of English immersion to boost claims about that method’s superiority as an approach for educating language-minority children. It is important to note, however, the tone of the debate over bilingual education. Ron K. Unz, the author of Proposition 227 and the sponsor of a copy-cat initiative in Arizona, is quoted as labeling bilingual educators “human vampires” who are fighting to keep programs that only benefit them and not their students. In other words, Mr. Unz accuses a group of educators of a lack of professionalism, labeling them as self-serving and their pedagogical approach as harmful to students.

Although the general public may find this rhetoric acceptable or even compelling in casting a vote on a proposed educational policy, we in the educational community must condemn it.

In the first place, the question of how best to educate children who are learning English as a second language should never have been put to the voters in June 1998, when Proposition 227 appeared on the ballot. Decisions regarding program design and methods of instruction should not be politicized, especially when the education of a large and growing minority population is at stake. Proposition 227 represents an abuse of the initiative process.

In the federal court challenge to Proposition 227 in Valeria G. v. Wilson, in July 1998, Judge Charles Legge ruled that the voters had expressed their “policy preference” for English-immersion over bilingual education. Exit polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times and CNN, however, found that Latino American voters had rejected Proposition 227 by a ratio of 2-to-1. The so-called “will of the people” was to deny access to valuable educational services to a minority group which could not prevail in the initiative process simply because they were outnumbered.

The highly charged political environment surrounding Proposition 227 is not conducive to formulation of sound public policy. We must not allow a debate over competing pedagogical theories and approaches to be “won” or “lost” based on one side’s ability to demonize the other in the media.

This is especially troubling in light of the critical shortage of teachers and the impact of Proposition 227 on California’s teaching force. A report released by the University of California’s Linguistic Minority Research Center documents that there was a 32 percent drop in the number of credentialed bilingual teachers in California between 1997-98 and 1998-99. The number of bilingual teachers fell from 15,783 to 10,690. This means that more than 5,000 fully certified teachers are no longer in classrooms with language-minority students, a population that disproportionately is taught by underqualified and emergency-credentialed teachers.

In addition, the number of teacher-candidates working on a bilingual credential at universities dropped by 52 percent. In other words, California has lost bilingual teachers at an alarming rate following Proposition 227, and these teachers are unlikely to be replaced by new certified bilingual teachers.

In expressing his scorn and contempt for bilingual educators, Mr. Unz may be advancing the political campaign to eliminate bilingual education programs and replace them with English-only instruction. He and his supporters have attributed gains in test scores to restrictions on native-language instruction for limited-English- proficient students. But several eminent scholars in bilingual education, including Stanford University Professor Kenji Hakuta and University of Southern California Professor Stephen Krashen, have challenged these claims. Nevertheless, the campaign to discredit and defame bilingual educators has gone unchallenged.

Such stereotyping only works to the detriment of thousands of language-minority students who are being deprived of the benefits of learning in classrooms with teachers who have the professional qualifications and skills to maximize their academic achievement. We must exercise the leadership and courage to counter popular opinion and political opportunism to unmask discriminatory practices that harm our colleagues, our teaching force, and ultimately, our children.

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