Education Commentary


November 01, 2000 11 min read

Choice Outshines Smaller Classes

To the Editor:

Alex Molnar, a longtime opponent of parental choice in education, argues in his essay “Voucher and Class-Size Research” that class-size reduction is a better reform than vouchers (Commentary, Oct. 25, 2000).

I have nothing against smaller class sizes, having been a public school teacher for 23 years. In addition, I have no real reason to refute his contention that smaller classes help students achieve. The data on this appear to show some promise. What Mr. Molnar does not mention is the staggering costs of this reform and the limited results for the expenditure.

He does mention that “we can have the most confidence in a body of research that includes studies that are of sufficient size and scope to provide educationally important and reliable results.” I agree, Mr. Molnar. So why do you stand in the way of a large experiment with school choice to prove its effectiveness, free from the roadblocks placed in the way by public officials opposed to the very concept?

Let me prove to you that school choice works. Our Catholic schools serve the poor and disadvantaged very well. The research is overwhelming and irrefutable. The “Catholic school effect” increases learning each year and is much more statistically significant than your gains from smaller classes. You obviously choose to ignore this research, but let me give you some real anecdotal research: Parents want to choose their children’s schooling. This ownership gets them more actively involved in their children’s education. The power of choice in this respect is conclusive.

It is an incredible coincidence that Mr. Molnar’s Commentary was printed two weeks before the presidential election. It does not help the cause of genuine educational reform to politicize this issue rather than making a decision genuinely based on the merits.

Ronald T. Bowes
Assistant Superintendent for
Public Policy and Development
Diocese of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Rutland’s Vouchers Won, Then Lost

To the Editor:

I read with interest and excitement David Barulich’s Commentary (“Four Reasons Why Voucher Plans Lose Elections,” Sept. 6, 2000) on the reasons why voucher initiatives fail at the polls.

In 1996, I was part of a group that successfully campaigned for a voucher program in the small city of Rutland, Vt. (population: 18,000). This initiative was spearheaded by the city’s mayor and placed on the Town Meeting Day ballot in March of that year. It called for “scholarships” or vouchers of up to $1,500 each in value for all the children in the city so they could attend the public or private schools of their choice in the state of Vermont.

It was a spirited campaign that taught those of us who worked on it a great deal. Although some of us had been involved in political campaigns in the past, we had never taken leadership roles requiring appearances on radio programs and in public debates and regular discussions with editorialists and reporters.

We were fortunate, however, to have a good leader, Mayor Jeffrey Wennberg, who understood what was at the core of the voucher debate. It wasn’t about good schools vs. bad schools or public schools vs. private ones. Mayor Wennberg, in fact, had his children enrolled in the city’s public schools. No, our argument centered on the “most appropriate school” for each child. For some children, that will be the local public school. For others, it will not.

Although opponents, led by a teachers’ union representative, tried to portray vouchers as supporting only the wealthy and drawing kids away from public schools, they were unsuccessful.

Our arguments won the day. By 55 percent to 45 percent, Rutland city voters approved our voucher plan. On election day, volunteers stood at the polls with exit surveys asking voters how they had voted on the issue and why. The top two reasons given for voting for the voucher plan were: Kids should be able to go to the schools that best meet their needs, and competition would help improve the quality of the public schools.

I wish I could say this story had a happy ending. However, Vermont requires that all changes to municipal charters be approved by the legislature before being implemented. Our voucher plan was such a charter change. An anti-school-choice legislature has refused to take it up for four straight years.

Nonetheless, the lessons we learned during our voucher campaign are worth imitating—most notably, vouchers are about opportunity for all kids, not about dissing the public schools. It’s a positive message that persuades the voters to do the right thing.

Libby Sternberg
Executive Director
Vermonters for Better Education
Rutland, Vt.

S&P’s Evaluations Are Not Partisan

To the Editor:

In your article “In State Campaigns, Schools Emerge as Topic A” (Sept. 20, 2000), you write that a change in leadership in the Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures this November could result in a shift away from those states’ recent efforts to increase accountability measures, specifically their contracts with Standard & Poor’s to provide School Evaluation Services. That speculation rests on the mistaken assumption that SES is a partisan effort. We disagree.

As members of the SES Advisory Board, we have been closely involved in its development and evolution. We know Standard & Poor’s management and staff, who are responsible for SES, aggressively solicit and deeply value input from those who have dedicated their careers to improving education. We have witnessed firsthand as they reached out to every conceivable constituency of SES to gain insight and to ensure that the service will be responsive to educators’ and policymakers’ needs. They’ve met with classroom teachers, superintendents, other education experts, parents, elected officials at the local and state levels, and business groups, to name a few.

In every case, these constituencies have acknowledged SES’s potential to provide nonpartisan systematic analysis and to become an important management and assessment tool for all members of the education community. In several instances, these meetings have resulted in the inclusion of additional data elements into the overall SES framework.

So any suggestion that Standard & Poor’s or SES will be more useful to one side of the political aisle than the other does not reflect the truly collaborative, inclusive manner in which it was created, or how it will be used. Indeed, as a service that provides thorough, independent analyses available to all parents, all educators, and all taxpayers, SES will be neither partisan nor divisive.

Susan Fuhrman
Dean, Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

Christopher T. Cross
President and Chief Executive Officer
Council for Basic Education
Washington, D.C.

Why Not ‘Exemplary’ Math Texts in Calif.?

To the Editor:

Responding to your story on California’s inhospitable climate for exemplary math texts (“‘Exemplary’ Texts Withdrawn From Calif. Adoption Process” Oct. 18, 2000), if an unfriendly foreign power had developed a new form of biological weapon that would render millions of California’s children unable to think independently, reason quantitatively, and apply what they learned, there would be mass hysteria and all manner of federal, state, and local investigations.

As it is, a few well-placed, ivory-tower mathematicians who never taught children in a classroom got themselves appointed by California’s own political officials to do what would be otherwise an act of war if committed by a foreign power. California’s anti-National Council of Teachers of Mathematics “standards” and kangaroo-court-type “process” of textbook review represents nothing less than the wholesale intellectual lobotomization of an entire generation of children.

F. Joseph Merlino
Project Director
The Greater Philadelphia Secondary Mathematics Project
La Salle University
Philadelphia, Pa.

3rd-Party Candidate in Vermont Race

To the Editor:

Your good review of the 11 gubernatorial races on the Nov. 7 ballots (“In Races for Governor, Education Out in Front,” Oct. 18, 2000) omitted the education positions of Vermont’s major third-party candidate.

Progressive (Green) candidate Anthony Pollina supports: (1) teacher salaries that are comparable to those of other college-educated professionals, (2) reducing health-care costs for schools through universal health care, (3) moving the statewide funding basis from property values to income, and (4) making state colleges more affordable.

Alan O. Dann
Marlboro, Vt.

Substantively Addressing the Leadership Shortage

To the Editor:

In your article “Nonprofit Group Aims To Groom New Breed of Leaders” (Sept. 20, 2000), you described the development of a nonprofit organization focused on “putting first-class principals in urban schools.” Jonathan H. Schnur, a former White House education adviser, and several of his colleagues plan to raise $4 million to finance the organization, New Leaders for New Schools. The organization plans to recruit experienced teachers, along with high-fliers from outside education, and train them for roles as school leaders, thereby addressing the issue of the leadership shortage.

While the need for recruiting talented individuals for school leadership positions is certainly something worthy of national attention and may be the key strength of the New Leaders proposal, we believe that Mr. Schnur and his colleagues, like many other groups and individuals interested in addressing the shortage of school leaders, have failed to consider the leadership-shortage issue in all of its complexity. Indeed, scholars, policymakers, policy analysts, school leaders, and professional organizations across the country have spent considerable time and energy analyzing this issue.

Among the factors identified as contributing to the shortage are: increasing expectations, responsibilities, and stressful conditions for school administrators; insufficient salaries and fringe benefits; lack of needed resources and support for school leaders; a lack of general awareness of the positive aspects of administration; limited and ineffective recruitment efforts; and a history of discriminatory hiring practices.

As a result of the interactive complexity of these issues, addressing the shortage will require a thoughtful, informed, and well-planned strategy. It is doubtful that creating one more alternative-certification program will either significantly reform the principalship or adequately address the shortage.

If Mr. Schnur and his colleagues had thoroughly investigated this issue, they would have discovered that a wealth of excellent programs that focus on the urban principalship already exist. Among these programs are the urban-principalship programs of the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston, the University of San Diego, California State University-Los Angeles, and Fordham University. These programs recruit committed and skilled educators, usually in cooperation with school districts and school administrators, into school leadership programs. They provide high-quality, substantive leadership-preparation programs based on current research and best practice aimed at developing leaders who will be successful with all children.

To reiterate, the shortage of qualified principals for urban schools (or any school for that matter) will not be adequately addressed by the creation of one more principal-preparation program, particularly one that fails to recognize the importance of educational experience to effective school leadership.

As Vincent L. Ferrandino of the National Association of Elementary School Principals commented in your article, the job requires knowledge that comes only with having taught in a classroom. As scholars of educational leadership, we cannot condone projects that deny the importance of professional knowledge and skills. Nor can we support measures that would place a school in the hands of an individual with no technical expertise in the process of educating children.

New Leaders and other endeavors of this nature are likely to have limited success, because they fail to grasp the importance of professional knowledge and experience and because they fail to address the substantive and complex issues surrounding the leadership shortage. The creators of the New Leaders project, however, should not give up their quest to recruit highly talented individuals into the principalship. Indeed, as noted previously, recruitment is an important factor in addressing the shortage, but so too is redefining the role of the principal.

Perhaps the $4 million that Mr. Schnur proposes to raise would be better spent on a nationwide effort to recruit talented educators into school leadership, to financially assist those recruits in obtaining leadership preparation, and to support leadership-mentoring partnerships.

Alternatively, the money could be invested in a new or existing “think tank” on school leadership, where current school and community leaders, scholars, and policymakers could work together to redefine the principalship, principals’ roles, and their working conditions. (Each of these factors ranks high among the reasons talented educators who currently hold administrative licensure give for not pursuing a principalship.)

Too often in education, the tendency is to charge forward with expensive reforms without carefully analyzing the situation and without understanding what actions and resources are needed. Yes, the shortage of school administrators requires our immediate attention and commitment. The shortage will not be solved, however, by the New Leaders organization or by any organization that limits its focus to recruitment and preparation.

Rather, the shortage will only be substantively addressed if groups like New Leaders, school and school district leaders, faculty members of preparation programs, representatives of administrator professional organizations, community and business leaders, and policymakers work together to address the issue in all its complexity.

Michelle D. Young
Executive Director

George J. Petersen
Associate Director
University Council for
Educational Administration
Columbia, Mo.