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In School Aid Battles, We Need Robin Hood

To the Editor:

Your recent articles about school funding ("Kansas Judge Orders State to Shut Schools," May 19, 2004; "‘Robin Hood’ On Ropes in Texas School Aid Tilt," May 12, 2004; "Mass. School Funding Comes Up Short, Judge Rules," May 5, 2004) failed to remind readers that in the Robin Hood legends, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain, not Robin Hood.

Over a year ago, New York’s legislature was directed to fix the state aid formula by July 30 of this year. ("Court Orders New York City Funding Shift," July 9, 2003). As the budget deadline looms, there has been no movement to date. School districts across the state voted on their school budgets without knowing their state aid. This says nothing of the inability of the legislature to deal with the vast inequities and inadequacies that have existed for the past 20 years that necessitated the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. The State of New York.

In New York, our state aid formula has helped rich districts get richer and poor districts get poorer. The legislature’s inaction is due to two difficult choices: raise revenues to meet the growing needs of all schools, particularly those with high numbers of children in poverty, or redistribute the current aid to those who need it most.

Neither has happened—neither will happen. Legislators who represent their individual constituents will not do what is right for the whole state; therefore, the courts had to order them to change the formula. To do what is right, the majority of the legislators must tell their constituents, "We must raise your taxes, and the money needs to go to the children that need it most." This is hardly a popular stance for politicians who want to get re-elected.

State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills wisely and courageously raised standards for all students, and increased accountability for all schools long before the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He knew that without insisting on one set of world-class standards, students in high-need districts would never succeed. He even went so far as to testify against his own state in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case because he knew that money does matter, and that without adequate resources, certain groups of students will receive a second-class education.

New York must now recognize that the two-legged stool cannot stand. Raising standards and improving accountability are only two parts of the solution. The third leg, and equally essential, is increased revenues to high-need districts. In New York, as in all states, there is a direct correlation between student achievement and the wealth of the district. If public education is to deliver on its promise of educating all students regardless of wealth, then adequate resources must be provided to all.

Our governor and legislature have chosen to neither raise taxes nor redistribute current aid. While the governor prides himself on increasing aid to schools by 40 percent during his tenure, the "new" money went to the old places. Wealthy districts got more—poor districts got enough to continue to reduce services. Even when enrollment in the wealthier districts dropped or local revenues increased, these districts held on to state aid under "save harmless" provisions. These provisions did great harm.

Districts like ours, with an increasing enrollment and declining local resources, fell further behind because there was not enough money to hold the wealthier districts "harmless" and give needy districts their fair share. The Sheriff of Nottingham, not Robin Hood, controlled aid distribution.

We need Robin Hood to redistribute the current aid based solely on need and enrollment. New York has a proposal from a group called the Midstate Finance Consortium that has reduced the 56-page school aid formula to one page. It uses simple principles like equity, clarity, predictability, flexibility, and adequacy. The legislature needs to redistribute the current aid; then, if wealthier districts lose state aid (as some should), we could raise taxes to provide these districts with the save-harmless provisions.

Will it happen in New York state without a judge? Not likely. This is why the Utica City School District must sue its own state for adequate resources for our children. The sad truth is that our legislators do not educate their children in the schools most in need. And while some legislators certainly fight every day for a fair and equitable solution, they are not in the majority. So when someone talks about "Robin Hood," I am hopeful that under the robes of justice is a man or woman wearing green tights.

Daniel G. Lowengard
Superintendent of Schools
Utica City School District
Utica, N.Y.

‘Voucher Nirvana’ and The New Segregation

To the Editor:

It is ironic that the new pro-voucher organizations, Alliance for School Choiceand its lobbying arm, Advocates for School Choice, chose the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to announce their missions ("Two New National Groups to Push for Voucher Programs," May 26, 2004). If carried to fulfillment, these would create highly segregated school populations.

If "Voucher Nirvana," the organization’s vision of a nationwide federally funded voucher program, is achieved, children will go to school only with students who are similar to them: physically, socially, or economically. They will miss the great democratic diversity unique to America’s public schools and philosophy of education.

Voucher Nirvana will encourage the athletes to seek their own kind, the artists to seek theirs, the religiously focused to stay together, the minorities to self-select, and so on, leaving behind in public schools all those who don’t accommodate easily into desirable subgroups. This new form of segregation will affect our society fundamentally, and will turn the clock back on integration.

The school choice debate is broader and deeper than some would have us believe. It is not about rescuing our schools from the control of unions or blind allegiance to a status quo. It is about maintaining a vision of a democracy made strong by the integration of its diverse peoples.

Jade Walsh
Jackson Hole, Wyo.

No Arabic Offerings? Reader Is Not Surprised

To the Editor:

Is it any surprise that Arabic is rarely taught in U.S. schools ("Arabic Offerings Rare in Schools," May 26, 2004)? There are many schools and districts in the Southwest that don’t even teach Spanish. When foreign languages are taught in our schools, they most often are taught using traditional methods that rarely result in students’ becoming bilingual or biliterate. (I placed my children in a dual-language program, and they are now bilingual and biliterate.)

We have a huge resource in the children who come to our schools knowing a second language. Yet we make sure that this resource is wasted when we let them lose their second language through strict "English only" policies. And then we complain of so few bilingual job applicants.

Frank Ohnesorgen
Hanford, Calif.

A Tale of Pseudoscience: Dogma Over Philosophy

To the Editor:

In the 50 years that education has been the professional joy of my life, I have read and heard endless theories, recommendations, and declarations concerning educational needs. Many of these pronouncements reflect pseudoscientific solutions. That education is an art, not a science, seems impossible for the field’s pundits to perceive.

Often, the author or lecturer shrouds himself in an elite-sounding title that was awarded by a public or private organization that possesses a vast bureaucracy and originates in Alice’s Wonderland. Like the snake-oil salesman of the past, he rolls into town with his elixir, supposedly "to serve children." Certainly, he did not come for self-aggrandizement and the glory of his organization.

He usually views as more important the cognitive domain over the affective domain, conditioned-response-behavioral criteria for learning over cognitive-perceptual-sensory criteria, measurement over evaluation, prescription over creativity, pseudoscientific research over applied research, and, above all, dogma over philosophy.

The author/lecturer deems himself an "expert." And it is as an "expert" that he adopts such positions. He does so, however, without having much, if any, classroom teaching experience. It numbs one’s mind.

I would suggest that these experts need a healthy dose of Arthur W. Combs’ philosophy in order to adjust their spectacles for viewing the critical goals of education, the genuine needs of children, the crucial role of the teacher, the best teaching methodologies, and the ingredients required for productive school reform. Arthur W. Combs creates a firm platform on which to stand when discussing education. His writings have contributed mightily to my viewing education as the joy of my professional life, in and out of the classroom.

Russell A. Baum
Los Angeles, Calif.

Defending SWAT Teams’ Role in School Safety

To the Editor:

In your front-page article "Columbine High: Five Years Later," (April 14, 2004), Stephen W. Wahlberg, a Colorado attorney who represented injured students and their families, directed a sarcastic comment at SWAT teams. His remark—"SWAT teams will now go in instead of screwing around"—is a disgraceful and insulting comment directed at a dedicated and elite group. The decision to wait to go into Columbine High School was a tactical decision, not "screwing around."

Up until the Columbine catastrophe, the law-enforcement community was equally divided on how to handle a school shooting. School shootings were treated like hostage or barricade situations. Some in law enforcement suggested setting up a perimeter and waiting for a negotiator and a SWAT team to arrive. SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, personnel are specialists in this area.

Others in law enforcement suggested rushing into the school in these situations. But an immediate entry offered considerable risks to both the officers and the innocents inside.

Little information was available to the emergency and rescue personnel as to who was shooting, who was injured, and who was inside; how many were shooting, how many were injured, and how many were inside; and what was happening in the building’s hallways, classrooms, and other public spaces. In addition, those best trained to enter the school, the SWAT team, took longer to get there, as many had to travel considerable distances.

Subsequent research on school shootings has shown that most of these crimes were over in minutes, long before all the members of a SWAT team could be assembled at the scene. As a consequence, the law-enforcement community has agreed that the best approach would be immediate entry into the school, once an adequate number of first responders had arrived there.

Most SWAT teams are made up of volunteers. They are like the military’s Special Forces. They are trained to do difficult jobs, and often risk their lives to save people. Officers feel tremendous pride in being a part of these groups, and a good deal of the training is done on their own time. There is no more dedicated group.

SWAT team members are unsung heroes. That Mr. Wahlberg might slander them is outrageous.

Arthur Cohen
Target Consultants International Ltd.
Massapequa, N.Y.

The writer, a retired school teacher, teaches graduate courses on school safety and is the author of
A Guide to Surviving a Hostage Encounter.

Student Behavior

To the Editor:

Your recent article on student behavior ("Report Notes Impact of Student Behavior," May 19, 2004) portrays an ideologically skewed and poorly informed view of the subject. Public Agenda’s report, "Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today’s Public Schools Foster the Common Good?," identifies an extremely important educational issue: Disruptive behavior is a major challenge for teachers and students alike. Unfortunately, the survey on which it is based asks parents and teachers their opinions on a very narrow range of solutions, some contrary to what a great deal of research says should be done about this problem.

The poll focuses on remedies that involve stricter rules, stronger enforcement, zero-tolerance policies mandating automatic suspensions or expulsions for certain infractions, removal of students from regular schools, and the need for parents to support all of the above. You also report that at a conference on legal fairness in education, organized by the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies of the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, similar get-tough approaches to student discipline were endorsed.

What information was ignored in these approaches? Beyond the fact that research suggests many of the remedies may be ineffective or counterproductive, alternative methods were left out. There was no mention of how a school culture that inculcates a sense of belonging and embodies values for how members of the school community should treat one another, shapes student behavior. Nor was there mention of the type of diagnostic and instructional skills teachers must have to address a wide range of learning needs and engage students deeply in learning (methods that are often regarded as the best antidotes to student disruption).

What about responses to students’ acting out that might help them learn from their mistakes, take responsibility, and figure out how to give back to their school community? And we should not forget the need to prepare schools to bridge racial and socioeconomic divides that can fuel misunderstanding, conflict, and discipline problems.

Let’s look a little more deeply at some of the supposed "causes" of discipline problems, as highlighted by the Public Agenda report. Parents are second-guessing teachers, questioning whether or not their children are being disciplined fairly. True. But why is this so? And why should parents’ questions be so problematic to educators?

As schools have become more impersonal and bureaucratic, teachers and families have stopped feeling that they belong to a common community. School culture often keeps parents at a distance, and building respectful, trusting relationships with families has become less of a priority for teachers.

For parents of color, there also is the knowledge that their children are more likely to be negatively stereotyped or seen as "bad." Schools need to make an extra effort to earn these parents’ trust, especially since data show that students of color receive disciplinary action disproportionately. Can we really resolve conflicts between parents and teachers about student discipline without building trust and communication? Blaming parents and working to diminish their rights (remedies that seem to be emphasized in the report and at the legal-fairness conference) do not seem to be steps in the right direction.

The survey also talks about lax enforcement of school rules. Though it is true that in many schools there is a laissez-faire sense of discipline, we have to ask ourselves why this is this happening. Often, the environment at such schools is so chaotic that enforcing rules can seem an impossible task, especially for new or undertrained/overstretched teachers.

The cure is not a mandate to enforce rules. Schools have to develop a unified, thoughtful approach to phasing in a culture that simultaneously creates new expectations, invites students to participate, and implements disciplinary interventions that help students take responsibility for their actionswhile at the same time increasing their identity as contributing members of the school community. The culture that pervades a school must change, so that most students are voluntarily following the rules.

Student disruption of class does interrupt teaching and is creating serious problems. But let’s treat it for what it is: a symptom of serious breakdown in our schools. Real solutions will require us to look at basic flaws in how schooling is currently structured, and to invest substantially in supporting teachers and principals.

Let’s have this discussion, rather than waste our time on old, superficial dichotomies about whether or not to get tough and separate "good, deserving" kids from "bad, disposable" ones.

Susan Sandler
San Francisco, Calif.

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Pages 44-45

Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Letters

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