Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great OP/ED: Public schools cornerstone of democratic society

PSEA: Public schools cornerstone of democratic society

The Sisters of Charity (K-8) and the Jesuits (9-12) instructed me to learn and to tell the truth.

My teachers at Northwestern University's Graduate School of Journalism taught me to find the facts of a matter and let them tell the story.

Those lessons are too often ignored these days. With talk (scream) radio and so-called "think tanks," today's lesson is to scream what you want people to believe, whether it's true, or based on facts, or not.

On June 7, the Daily Local gave its entire editorial column over to Jay Ostrich of the Commonwealth Foundation for a column filled with misinformation, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.

Mr. Ostrich's point was that we need school choice to save children in public schools from devastation. This actually made me chuckle, because the Commonwealth Foundation has never proposed anything to help public schools. They want to give people our tax money to abandon public schools, which would help destroy public education.

In the editorial, Mr. Ostrich started by talking about University City High School, a few blocks from "the great University of Pennsylvania," having terrible test scores. Well, I spent four years as a student at Penn. The surrounding neighborhood suffers, as do many urban areas, from the scourges of drugs, crime, and high unemployment.

Survival on the streets is paramount. Even if we gave 50 percent of the students there vouchers, Mr. Ostrich has no answers to three questions: 1) Where would those students go in a city of already overcrowded schools; 2) Private schools are not required to accept voucher students, so what then, and 3) What about the 50 percent left behind?

To answer #3, we need only look at the City of Chester, where half of the students go to a charter school owned by a lawyer who lives in the largest mansion on the Main Line. He contributed $330,000+ to Gov. Corbett's campaign, but wouldn't open the charter school's books to the Philadelphia Inquirer even though the school gets public money - lots of it.

Meanwhile, the regular Chester public schools are laying off hundreds of teachers, so that the students in those schools will have far fewer resources than the charter school. And Philadelphia schools just laid off 1,500 teachers because of Gov. Corbett's public education cuts.

Mr. Ostrich's next point was about the prevalence of violence in some public schools. A sane and responsible society would place a sufficient police presence in schools to prevent such violence. But with the Corbett/Commonwealth cuts, security personnel and educational aides as well as teachers will have to be laid off. Will the foundation urge Gov. Corbett to rehire these education and public safety personnel? Certainly -- not. And of course, when the Obama administration wanted to use stimulus money to keep public school teachers and police personnel from being laid off, Mr. Ostrich's political party and foundation fought that idea tooth and nail.
Mr. Ostrich then wrote that since 1996, state aid to local schools has doubled "yet proficiency has stagnated." This is simply wrong. In fact, with Gov. Ed Rendell's steady state aid increases over the last eight years, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation with rising federal test scores for the last eight years. But when a PSEA official pointed out that fact on the PA Department of Education's own website, that fact was taken off the website the next day. An inconvenient truth, I guess.

In New Jersey, where I worked for 29 years, the Supreme Court ordered the state to send aid to poor districts so that they would have similar resources to rich ones. Over the next decade, test scores in the poor districts increased, in some cases dramatically. But the current secretary of education in Pennsylvania says that "money doesn't matter." Why then do wealthy people send their children to expensive private schools with small class sizes and the most modern learning tools? But then, the secretary's degree is not in education, but in political science, as if we needed more proof that what's driving the voucher train is politics, not education.

Mr. Ostrich writes: "No study has ever shown harmful effects to either (voucher) recipients or public schools." I guess he's unaware that in 2007, a study was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation's premier center for trying the idea. The institute is funded in large part by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an advocate of school choice.

The author of the study stated: "Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim (Milwaukee Public Schools) may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district's schools." The report found no appreciable long-term benefit either to voucher recipients or public schools.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper did a study in 2005 and found that parents given vouchers often "chose bad schools and stuck with them." Even former Milwaukee Superintendent Howard Fuller, one of the heroes of the school-choice movement, now admits that he may have "oversold" the idea.

The Commonwealth Foundation says it is "independent." How can we tell? They also won't open their books, because their big donors are probably big corporations and millionaires who want to break unions, especially teacher unions.

My final point: Even as a Catholic school graduate, I don't want my tax money going to religious schools (my late father would have called the voucher program "welfare" -- a great irony, since conservatives like the Commonwealth Foundation supposedly oppose welfare).

Public schools are a cornerstone of a democratic society. They take people from all races, nationalities, and creeds and try their best to make them productive citizens. In large measure, they are a great American success story. As all human institutions do (see the Catholic Church), America's public schools have problems. But please don't allow people who only want to amass more political power to fool you into believing that they care about poor children. Those same people have opposed almost every political measure to blunt the effects of poverty for the last 100 years.

(Robert P. Broderick has worked for the New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Education Associations for 34 years. PSEA represents more than 191,000 active and retired school and health care employees. Broderick attended St. Michael's Grammar School and St. Peter's Prep (both in Jersey City, NJ); the University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University. He lives in West Chester.)

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