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Exit Ahead By: Peter Wood
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Sol Stern's Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice is available from Encounter Books. Click here for more details.

Iftimie Simion taught in a university, published research papers, and was a coach of the Romanian national math team before immigrating to the United States in the 1980s.  Here he landed a job teaching math at one of America’s most prestigious public schools, Stuyvesant High School, in lower Manhattan, where he was quickly recognized by his colleagues as well as some of the brightest students in New York City as an exceptional teacher.  None of that mattered, however, to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union that “represents” New York City’s public school teachers, and that more or less controls that city’s public school systems. 

The AFT contract emphasizes teacher “seniority” over all else and includes a provision that makes teachers like Mr. Simion vulnerable to being displaced by undistinguished time-servers.  Stuyvesant is a magnet for such “transfers” looking to coast through their last few years before retirement, and sure enough, a 72-year old teacher from another school made a move on Simion’s job. 

This story unfolds in a chapter title “Stuyvesant High School’s Dirty Little Secret,” which is part of Sol Stern’s new book, Breaking Free:  Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.  The “secret” is that a substantial portion of Stuyvesant’s faculty is comprised of union featherbedders who have exercised their contractual right to “transfer” into a school in which they are, by intellectual ability, manifestly incapable of teaching.  Here is Mr. Stern describing the 72-year old math teacher teaching at Stuyvesant:

“He worked at a snail’s pace with kids who were ready to sprint.  In the class I observed, he put quadratic equations on the board and then assigned some students to do the problems.  The teacher used a crib sheet to steer himself methodically through the steps of the solutions…His lack of mastery of the curriculum he was being paid to teach was so glaring that he had to sit in on two lower-level math courses at the school.

Meanwhile, Mr. Simion managed to hang-on—albeit at a salary a fraction of that paid to his quadratically-challenged senior—and scrambled to take the ed school courses would allow him to become a regular New York City public school teacher. 

These are not the sorts of injustices that are likely to set anyone’s blood a-boil.  Breaking Free is, in this sense, a temperate book.  Stern is frustrated and indignant at the dumb, self-serving rules that the AFT has imposed on New York City Public Schools, and as he follows the careers of his two sons all the way through that system from the mid-1980s, he gives memorable portraits of well-meaning but helpless school principals, malevolent union leaders and befuddled system administrators.  The teachers tend to divide between small numbers of exceptionally able individuals who have come to school-teaching as a second career, and the ed-school-trained drones who work to the clock and swear by the contract. 

But the detail slowly builds.  The third-grade math teacher who neglects multiplication tables to have her students endlessly measure and re-measure a Japanese garden seems like a figure out of a Borges story.  Steve Plaut, the principal of P.S. 87, the Sherman school named after William Tecumseh Sherman, explains that the reason the students don’t know who Sherman was or much of anything else about the Civil War, is that, “The state of knowledge of constantly changing.”  When Stern asks his son Jonathan in third grade if he has learned about George Washington, Jonathan innocently replies, “You mean George Washington Carver?”  Yes, indeed, the state of knowledge is constantly changing, but perhaps not for the better. 

Half-way though, Breaking Free breaks free from the tone of extended complaint and becomes an indictment of the Left for locking up millions of children in third-rate schools for the sake of the political support of the teachers unions. 

Stern, who was once a participant in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and an editor of the New Left magazine Ramparts, has lived in New York City for several decades.  His roots in the Left made Stern an initial enthusiast for the “child-centered” ideology that teachers are indoctrinated with at most schools of education, and he was likewise a reluctant critic of teacher unions, but his experience with his children’s teachers and school principals eventually cured him of these sympathies.  Breaking Free is the analysis of a man who has found razor-sharp clarity about the importance of incentives and disincentives. 

As Stern sees it, the deepest faults in America’s inner city schools arise from the structures of rewards that favor teacher seniority over proven ability and performance; ed school credentials over natural talent; and teachers’ personal gain and convenience over the needs of students.  The perversion of incentives doesn’t stop there.  Stern casts a cold eye as well, for example, on the kowtowing to teachers unions by vote-, campaign worker-. and financial contribution-hungry politicians.  Above all else, he attacks the teachers unions and their political allies for corralling of students into public schools to maximize teacher revenue.  Where public funds are allocated on a per-student basis, each student has, in effect, a bounty on his head, and the teachers unions have been unrelenting in their efforts to block any proposal that would result in some of this revenue from student head count from migrating with the students to other non-public schools.   

Of course, the teachers unions cannot present such naked and cynical self-interest as a public argument, and Stern spends some effort dismantling the usual teacher union rhetoric for blocking vouchers.  The unions, for example, often argue that private schools “cream” the best students, and this explains why public schools lag behind in virtually every measure of academic performance.  Yet as Stern point out, many parochial schools take students who are academically identical to their public school counterparts and, within a year or two, these students out-distance the public school kids from the same neighborhoods or even the same families. 

The late Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a key figure in New York City public schools, blustered in 1991, “I challenge the Catholic schools to accept the lowest-scoring 5 percent of our public school students.  Let’s see how they do then.”  As Stern tells the story, Shanker’s rodomontade was met with answer from a “soft-spoken, middle-aged lady” named Catherine Hickey, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, who replied, “Mr. Shanker, in the name of the Catholic Schools, we accept your challenge.”  Some discussions ensued, but the union and (union-dominated) Board of Education soon buried the idea of an experiment so risky to their cliché.

Another argument that teachers unions frequently cite against school choice is that it is anti-democratic in spirit and would undermine the fine success of public schools in creating a common citizenry.  In view of the derisory performance of public schools in most of our urban districts, it must take substantial botox injections to utter this claim with a straight face.  Stern is, however, no opponent of public schools per se.  He thinks public schools—unions and all—could play a constructive role in educating Americans if they faced healthy dose of competition.  But let’s put a marker down on the argument the school-choice-is-a-danger-to-democracy argument.  For after all, it is not just that many of public schools are so incompetent that many of their 8th graders can neither spell “democracy” nor define it.  Rather, these are the same schools that have elevated the profoundly anti-democratic doctrine of “diversity” above any other civic principle. 

The trump argument of the teachers unions against school choice, however, had always been that vouchers would impermissibly violate the separation of church and state.  Stern provides a helpful reminder of how historically recent is the interpretation of the First Amendment as barring state to religious schools.  From the American founding well into the mid-19th century, state government routinely funded children’s education in religious schools, and it was not until the influx of large numbers of Catholic immigrants that states adopted measures against such funding.  And it was not until 1947, in the Everson case, the Court found in the First Amendment, a “wall of separation between church and state.”  Justice Hugo Black found that “wall” in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to some Connecticut Baptists in 1803.  Despite its extra-Constitutional origin, Black’s appropriation of Jefferson’s phrase became a kind of Constitutional dogma—not unlike Justice O’Connor’s recent elevation of Justice Powell’s ruminations about the value of “diversity.” 

For all practical purposes, however, the “wall” argument against vouchers collapsed in June 2002 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the Court upheld the City of Cleveland’s school voucher program against a claim that Ohio’s authorization of school vouchers violated the First Amendment’s stipulation that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”  The Zelman decision made it clear that there is no important legal obstacle to school vouchers.  If parents and politicians can summon the energy and resolve, the public school monopoly can be broken.  With that in mind, Stern ends his book on an optimistic note.  He thinks that, working from the Zelman decision, parents will succeed in establishing school voucher programs like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and that the threat of students escaping to private and parochial schools will at last force public schools to mend their ways. 

Breaking Free, coincidentally, appeared almost at the same moment as Peter Brimelow’s new book, The Worm in the Apple:  How Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education.  Where Stern writes mostly from personal experience, Brimelow offers a more wide-ranging and factually-detailed account of these pernicious institutions.  The two books nicely complement each other, although it is grim to read them back to back. 

The importance of Stern’s book is inseparable from his standing as a man of the Left who got fed up.  Stern didn’t shed his earlier commitments early or easily, and perhaps in some areas he hasn’t left them at all.  But his travails with the New York City Public Schools led to his writing pieces on the schools for conservative Manhattan Institute and now to this book.  And Stern is at his best when he is considering the views of his former comrades. 

He eviscerates, for example, Jonathan Kozol, the weepy Marxist whose fictionalized accounts of inner city schools, such as Savage Inequalities, are a standard part of ed school curricula.  Kozol’s books prop up the doctrine that the failures of inner city schools stem from American racism, but Stern deftly disposes of the Kozol-osities:

Like every other black child Kozol has ever written about, [Mario] is engaging, bright, innocent and brimming with untapped talent.  If Mario is going nowhere, it’s only because the rich white taxpayers of New York refuse to spend enough money on his education.  Unquestionably Mario was a victim of cruel unfairness, like every poor child sentenced to a dysfunctional school.  But the unfairness has nothing to do with the reasons Kozol and the teacher’ unions put forth.  Money has been pouring into urban school systems since the early 1990s.  The cities have benefited from more than $50 billion in federal Title I money for poor children…Three of the six cities portrayed in Savage Inequalities—New York, Washington, and Camden—now spend $11,000 per pupil or more [which is] more money than the average expenditure for the United States, and it is higher than the average f the states those three cities are in.

A page later he is taking stock of Lisa Belzberg, daughter-in-law of Edgar Bronfman and enthusiastic—and seemingly oblivious—public school booster, who advocacy of the New York City Public School “Principals for a Day” program has helped sustain support in the business community for an inane educational enterprise.  By putting the spurious sense of Kozol adjacent to the genuine senselessness of Belzberg, Stern perfectly captures the profound immobility of the public schools. 

In the last three chapters of Breaking Free, Stern balances his account of the dysfunctional public schools with the relative success of parochial and charter schools in serving inner city kids.  His chapter on the Milwaukee, “The Schools That Vouchers Built,” is especially successful in capturing the strange political alliances that gave rise to the first major success for school vouchers.  Here we find welfare mom Polly Williams (‘the Rosa Parks of the school reform movement.”) and later Wisconsin chairwoman of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, mixing with Michael Joyce as president of the Bradley Foundation;  Howard Fuller, head of the Black Alliance for Educational Options; John Gardner, a white, former labor union organizer and member of the Milwaukee School Board; and John Norquist, Milwaukee’s former Democratic mayor.  The men and women who brought school vouchers to life underscore how troublesome this movement is bound to become for the Democrats.

Stern speaks in his subtitle of “The Imperative of School Choice,” and a great many Americans regard it as exactly that.  For a Democratic party cemented together with the National Education Association and the AFT, but which also enjoys overwhelming support from African-Americans, the rising popularity of school choice with inner city blacks and other minorities is an emerging dilemma.  For the moment, the Democrats are sticking with the teachers unions and trying to persuade African-Americans that the answer to lousy schools is just more and more and more money.  Democratic Party organizers had better hope Sol Stern’s book doesn’t catch on in Harlem.

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