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State-Defined Quality Is Not for Everyone

To the Editor:

In "Four Reasons Why Voucher Plans Lose Elections" (Commentary, Sept. 6, 2000), David Barulich claims that upcoming state voucher initiatives are "doomed to certain defeat." He may be right, but his proposed alternative is fatally flawed.

Mr. Barulich suggests that we institute "scholastic achievement grants" that would pay on the basis of scholastic achievement, rather than "seat time in private schools." His flaw is that the measurement of scholastic achievement would be based on state- developed "criterion-referenced examinations to measure what students are expected to learn at each grade level in public schools."

During the expensive and worthless "state standards" craze of the 1990s, the states proved themselves quite incapable of developing meaningful criteria for the measurement of educational achievement. Most state standards have been justifiably attacked as vague, jargon-filled, and hostile to the goals that most parents would set for their own children (see the Sept. 11, 1998, Commentary, "The State of Standards: Four Reasons Why Most 'Don't Cut the Mustard'"). We should not be surprised, since the people who wrote these standards are the same ones who created the public school policy that has so many of us clamoring for school choice.

Like Mr. Barulich, many people seeking better schools are hobbled by the notion that there exists some benevolent government agency capable of discerning the public's needs and implementing standards that will "improve the quality of education" in everyone's eyes. It is precisely this fallacy that led us to implement the public schools in the first place. If our current bureaucrats can't do the job, then why will Mr. Barulich's bureaucrats fare any better?

The reason we don't have vouchers yet is that the teachers' unions siphon off an unstoppable flow of funds from our teachers' salaries, and then use millions of those dollars annually to finance misleading advertising that plants ridiculous doubts in the minds of gullible voters, much like the fallacious voucher "problems" that Mr. Barulich mentions in his essay. Our only hope lies in the fact that the opposition to the unions' propaganda is getting better organized with every passing year, and eventually even the enormous power of the unions will fall to the power of the public.

David Ziffer
Batavia, Ill.

Digital School Data: Who Will Provide It?

To the Editor:

I never quite figured out what Peter J. Stokes ("How E-Learning Will Transform Education," Commentary, Sept. 13, 2000) actually meant by "e-learning." But whatever it is, he claims that e-learning will allow parents to "[assess] their children's progress via online access to real-time student-information systems."

As a teacher, I had to laugh. Where would this "real time" information come from? Would students take daily computer-administered quizzes? Or does Mr. Stokes imagine teachers spending every day entering new observation data for 25 or 125 students into a World Wide Web site?

One should also consider whether it would be healthy for the growth of students for them to feel that everything they did was being evaluated and scored.

Tom McDougal
Dartmouth, N.H.

Making a Distinction on Role of Grammar

To the Editor:

Patrick Groff ("Two Views on 'Basics' of English Grammar," Sept. 6, 2000) has misread my letter to the editor concerning the teaching of grammar ("Teaching English: Like Math, It Needs Grounding in the Basics," Letters, Aug. 2, 2000). Perhaps I did not make myself clear, but I meant to imply that with the advent of words in human evolution, the organizing principle we call grammar evolved also. As Mr. Groff says, children pick up the grammar they hear just as they pick up words.

My point was that the spread of English as a universal language demands a uniform grammar to enhance our understanding of one another. Just as speakers of other languages can continue their language and grammar as their primary languages, so can speakers of various English dialects and accompanying grammatical structures within their subgroup of English speakers. But in the formal speaking and writing of English for mass use, we should all use a standard English.

Mr. Groff missed my point, too, on the necessity in writing of having a way of making things clear without the gestures and emphases that accompany speech. The difference between "shall" and "will" is gone forever, but it once served the purpose of making the writer's emphasis clear without the necessity of searching the context. The same is true of the educator-imposed elimination of the last of serial commas, which often leads to confusion as to exact meaning.

Standard, reason-based grammar is efficient, logical, and an important means of understanding in a global context. That schools of education continue to think each child's experience prepares him or her to thrive in the modern world is tragic for many youngsters in the United States.

Claire Collier
Shelburne, Vt.

The Voucher Diversion: Private Gain or Public Good?

The juxtaposition of two private-school-voucher articles in your first issue of the new school year ("Privately Financed Vouchers Help Black Students, Two Studies Find" and "Traditional Public Schools Win Vote of Confidence in Poll," Sept. 6, 2000) provides yet again a stark reminder that, however vouchers may be defined, current voucher initiatives are not about community or civic responsibility for strengthening public schools.

The concept of private school vouchers, based on the market theory that choice and competition can provide more educational opportunities for poor and disadvantaged students, often compares and pits these students against those who remain in the public schools. One of your articles, for example, reported on two small-scale studies—in Charlotte, N.C., and Washington—concluding that African-American students who received vouchers to attend private schools scored higher on tests than their counterparts in public schools. Yet, the other article, reporting on the 32nd annual poll of the "Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," conducted by the Gallup Organization for Phi Delta Kappa, showed that there is waning public support for vouchers. The public, apparently, is sending a message that they believe in public schools and want to improve them, not give up on them.

It may be true that a few private-school-voucher students test higher. But it is also true that their gains come with some major public "costs." Vouchers may provide parents with choices and options, but they do not provide public schools with what they desperately need: a community involved in the development of educational purpose and resolve, based on common ground and collective effort and commitment.

Vouchers will not tackle the tough issues of public education reform or motivate democratic discussions of what kinds of schools are most likely to produce positive results for the entire community. They will give individual parents the means for attaining private ends in individual private settings. And in doing so, they will reduce the public space where we all can meet as citizens embracing a common reality for all of our children.

In essence, vouchers allow the public to abdicate its responsibility for the most disadvantaged of our children. They let all of us wash our hands of these children by sending them elsewhere, beyond the radar screen of public scrutiny and accountability.

Moreover, vouchers do little for the children who remain behind or for the schools that need modernization. They do little for the teachers whose skills need upgrading, or for the community that needs inspiration and hope. At a time when we most need community-building organizations that uplift and promote what is good and common to all Americans, vouchers may dismantle the public entities that hold greatest promise for achieving these ends: the public schools.

Vouchers may, in fact, be a palliative that allows us to avoid the tough choices that we must make as citizens. They threaten to end community discussion about school reform. The blame for bad schools can then be shifted to "market" failures and simplistic quick fixes, and citizens can exonerate themselves for any responsibility that we as Americans have, not only for our own children, but for other children in our community as well.

Let's be clear: The achievement gap between minority students and other students must be narrowed and eliminated. But the way to do that is not through the market. Vouchers may raise the scores of some children, but they lack the civic vision, the commitment, and the resources to provide expanded opportunities for all. That will come only through the demand of the public, the work of the community, and the trust and commitment of parents. That, in essence, is the democratic process.

The author Robert Bellah laments that "just when we are moving toward ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, the capacity to imagine a social life that would hold individuals together is vanishing." Building civic "togetherness" for all of our children is a tough job. It requires leaders such as Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who is working with the Boston Plan for Excellence on teacher professional development; Superintendent Benjamin Canada of Portland, Ore., who is working with the Portland Public Schools Foundation on a districtwide strategic plan; and the former Philadelphia superintendent, David Hornbeck, who worked with the Philadelphia Education Fund on engaging the public in support of major reform initiatives. There are other examples across the country of communities rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work of citizenship.

Let's treat vouchers for what they are: a diversion from the important civic business of guaranteeing every child a quality public school.

Wendy D. Puriefoy
Public Education Network
Washington, D.C.

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Page 48

Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as Letters

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