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Vouchers for Some Harm the Rest

To the Editor:

I found your Jan. 13, 1999, article "Ahead of the Curve," to be misleading, as it grouped Milwaukee's voucher system among what are truly "public" approaches to broadening school choice. Private schools receiving public funding through vouchers are not public schools and are not accountable for those dollars. Rather, a voucher system has the potential to lower the quality of education for the vast majority of Milwaukee's students--those in public schools.

Public school choice, where parents have options in the education of their children, is something parents want and deserve. But there is a very important distinction between reforms that allow for more public school choice, and those that merely siphon off much-needed funds from the public schools--and the majority of students that need them--and divert these funds to support private and parochial schools. In fact, some 90 percent of American students, with your article citing 80,000 students in Milwaukee alone, are educated in public schools. Logic, then, tells us that to improve student learning, we should focus our public dollars where most kids are--in public schools--and not on removing a few students and harming the rest.

So that all parents and students do have choices and opportunities in receiving a quality education, the U.S. Department of Education supports charter schools, magnet schools, and other forms of public school choice. At the same time, we believe in supporting districts' efforts to improve public schools by improving teacher quality, reducing class sizes, and modernizing facilities. Unfortunately, Milwaukee has also chosen to spend its public dollars on private education, a strategy that we believe, in contrast to the depiction in your article, is private education at public expense.

Gerald Tirozzi
Assistant Secretary for Elementary
and Secondary Education
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

Court Should Weigh Harassment 'Heavily'

To the Editor:

I worked for 30 years in a school system that congratulated itself on being the most progressive in the country. During that time, I witnessed such a massive overlooking of the most vicious sexual harassment that I assumed it was some deliberate policy, even if unwritten. Thus I read your article "Court Weighs Harassment by Students," (Jan. 20, 1999) with a great deal of interest.

I hope that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor puts her harmless metaphor of "little boys teasing little girls" to rest and deals sternly with an epidemic of disgusting brutality which turns many classrooms into workshops of oppression where, under the watchful eye of a duly licensed teacher, the strong learn how to make it hot for the weak. The net effect of such school experience is to desensitize everyone to the feelings of others.

According to an earlier article in Education Week, one-third of all 10th graders reported they were threatened or injured during the previous year when data were gathered in 1997 ("With 2000 Looming, Chances of Meeting National Goals Iffy," Jan. 13, 1999). The key word is "reported"; veteran victims are aware the schools will do nothing to help them and so give off "reporting."

Perhaps a personal story will shed some light on the particular horror enormous numbers of children are forced to endure, literally compelled by law to be complicit in their own psychological destruction.

From 1988 to 1991, I was employed at a school in Community School District 3 in New York City (which mostly falls between the Metropolitan Opera and Columbia University and is quite a prosperous enclave). The school billed itself in the local press as "The West Side's Best-Kept Secret," a designation referring to the air of peace and calm that marked its corridors. During my second or third week in the school, a small group of boys began to harass selected girls in my homeroom. Although my own inclination is to horsewhip such children, the policy of District 3--as is true virtually everywhere--is to strictly forbid physical intervention. And so I located the ringleader and ordered him to the principal's office.

In the most charming and polite tone imaginable, the 13- or 14-year-old boy told me wearily, "Save yourself the trouble, Mr. Gatto, he'll just send me back here in eight minutes." You know, he wasn't wrong by 15 seconds.

After that the harassment escalated, and several girls were undressed to the waist over the next few weeks. Gradually, one after another, they failed to show up for school at all in the morning. Finally, only one girl was left, who seemed to enjoy the attention. One day, in a monument to the profound vulgarity of government school management, the principal showed up at my door demanding that I do something about the poor attendance among the girls in my homeroom. I told him I'd be glad to get on that as soon as he could guarantee me that forced breast massage and other forms of sexual harassment weren't going to be tolerated. He left in a huff.

I finished my teaching stint as the New York State Teacher of the Year for 1991 and have moved heaven and earth since to do my bit to see the end of the public school monopoly. Let's hope the court weighs harassment as heavily as it deserves.

John Taylor Gatto
New York, N.Y.

Questions of 'Adequacy'

To the Editor:

Your article "Facing a Test," in the report Quality Counts '99 (Jan. 11, 1999), gave Wyoming's educational finance system a grade of F in "adequacy." But that is based on descriptions and appraisals that are erroneous and convey damaging misimpressions.

The most egregious conclusion you reach is the award of a failing grade for "adequacy." I take the term to apply to the state's commitment of resources to K-12 education. But in this categorization, as well as in the grade of C you award for "equity," you err badly. The Wyoming legislature has enacted the most equitable school finance plan in the nation, equal in effect with Hawaii's. Your "grades" reflect either ignorance or bias or both, and prompt suspicions that they are the result of input from the state's adversaries in pending school finance litigation.

Some background is in order. In 1995, the Wyoming Supreme Court decided that the state's methods of financing schools were unconstitutional and issued one of the most far-reaching school finance decisions in the country's history. The decision specifies that there can be no per-pupil spending differences other than those linked to characteristics of individual students, inherent features of the schooling process, or economic conditions of the region in which a district is located. Moreover, the court mandated that the amount of money allocated per pupil must be "adequate" to ensure provision of a proper education. The court suggested further that the dollars provided per pupil should be based on the cost of providing this proper education.

In the time since our supreme court published its sweeping decision, Wyoming's executive and legislative branches of government have cooperated in the design of a modern and sweeping set of educational finance reforms. These reforms render the current system: (1) cost-based; (2) adequate; and (3) as resource-equitable as current understanding permits.

These far-reaching reforms go virtually unmentioned in your article. A large part of the blame for that probably comes from limited interviewing. It is apparent but nevertheless unfortunate that only lawyers and representatives of parties suing the state were asked to comment on the litigation testing the validity of Wyoming's reformed system. Understandably, this led to a certain "spin" that is not only inaccurate but misleading to your readers.

There is no description in your article of the innovative features of Wyoming's new cost-based, block-grant, school finance distribution program. There is no mention of the fact that local districts can no longer use wealth-based resources to add to revenues the state specifies as "cost based." There is no acknowledgment of the state's positions on issues to be contested in the pending litigation. Neither is there mention of Wyoming's having prevailed in December of 1997, when the newly enacted cost-based, block-grant plan was tested at trial. After the trial's conclusion, the court issued interim findings of fact and conclusions of law that specifically approved the block-grant program and found it to be cost-based.

The district court further found that the cost-based block grant met the high bar established by the state supreme court for "adequacy," as that test related to the state's elementary schools and/or grades. The court withheld judgment for the upper grade levels, pending further legislative action. That action has been taken.

Had you bothered to interview representatives of the Wyoming attorney general or other offices in the executive branch of state government, you would have learned that the December 1997 trial outcome was extremely important because the standard for adequacy established by the supreme court in the 1995 Campbell County decision is far and away the most rigorous ever imposed by any court or legislated by any legislature in the entire United States. In other words, under Wyoming's current law, there cannot be any spending differences related to wealth. Only the grade level or income level of a student, for example, and the cost of living of a school district can be linked to per-pupil revenue differences.

It is unlikely that any other state in the nation could presently meet such a rigorous test of equity, with the possible exception of Hawaii. In addition, when the test for adequacy is also considered, we know and the courts have affirmed that Wyoming is now providing an adequate and equitable amount of revenue for each elementary public school student in the state. Not even Hawaii can make that claim.

Your grading system appears not to have taken the following circumstances into account:

  • The new school finance formula has increased spending significantly faster than inflation. In 1996-97, Wyoming was spending $5,926 per average daily membership. In 1998-1999, the first year of the new formula, that amount was increased to $6,755 per ADM, or about 14 percent more. During that same period inflation was less than 3 percent.
  • In 1999-2000, without any change to the current distribution formula, funding will increase to $6,779 per ADM.
  • Changes currently recommended by the legislative select education committee will increase 1999-2000 funding to approximately $7,039 per ADM, for an annual increase of approximately 4 percent. Inflation is likely to be about 1.5 percent for the period. Compare $7,039 per ADM with surrounding states and then assert that Wyoming gets and F for adequacy.

The biased nature of the grade given to Wyoming for "adequacy" is best revealed by some comparative statistics. Our neighboring state of Utah spends $2,500 less per student and received a C. Our neighboring state of Idaho spends $1,800 less and received a B-minus. Montana spent $200 less and received a B. These comparisons don't take into account Wyoming's further planned increases in dollars per ADM.

None of the revenue numbers cited above includes capital construction, state-level expenditures, or federal funds. The state is also providing a separate pool of resources for capital-construction needs of local districts, a unique feature of Wyoming's reformed system of education finance.

Your article also implies that Wyoming does not make an average revenue-raising effort. But your measures omit taxes on mineral and other extracted forms of wealth. If your analysis took these into account, you would see that our tax effort is at or above the national average.

My colleagues and I are mindful of the utility of having a report such as yours and of the significance of comparing states with one another. But you do Wyoming a great disservice. It is crucial that the information you use be accurate and not the result of "spin" created by litigants who have a particular agenda.

Raymond B. Hunkins
Jones, Jones, Vines & Hunkins
Attorneys & Counselors at Law
Wheatland, Wyo.

Editor's Note: Wyoming's grades for adequacy and equity of resources were based on the most recent data reported by the state department of education to the U.S. Department of Education. The state earned an F in adequacy because its education spending declined from 1987 to 1997 when compared with inflation. Equity grades were calculated using 1995 data, the most recent available for this purpose. In 1995, as Mr. Hunkins notes, the Wyoming Supreme Court declared the state's system for funding schools to be unconstitutional. Wyoming's grades should improve as newer data become available to measure the recent changes Mr. Hunkins describes.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 37-38

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Letters

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