Wednesday, November 24, 2004

COLUMN -- Moral imperative for school choice

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:02 AM |  


Preparing for a speaking engagement in St. Paul, Sol Stern read about a situation in the St. Paul Public Schools that was described as "nuts."

Stern is a journalist and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow whose curmudgeon-like commentary has alerted parents and politicians to problems with government-run education. But he is, first and foremost, a parent.

Observing some of the "strange things" that were going on in his children's schools started Stern investigating further, seeking the reasons why New York public schools and teachers were not all they should be. His quest begat the book "Breaking Free" (Encounter Books), which combines a parent's heartfelt concern with a reporter's skeptical eye and a scholar's discerning perception to dissect the dysfunction inherent in a monopoly education system.

Stern shared the lessons in his book with Twin Cities parents, educators and business leaders as part of the "Educational Speaker Series" sponsored by the Partnership for Choice in Education, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Citizens League. He used the lack of text and library books at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul as illustrative of the underlying problem with government education.

Sol Stern, Manhattan Institute

"Instead of accountability for the problem being placed where it belongs, on the school administrators," Stern told his audience, "I read that the problem is not enough money — the last refuge of failed policy. I checked. St. Paul educates a student for about $11,000 a year. This situation is not 'nuts' because we're not spending enough on public schools. The situation is 'nuts' because we're not holding the public schools accountable."

To avoid facing the accountability problem, racism, legislative insensitivity and a public refusal to accept that we don't pay enough for the education of our children have all been offered as excuses for government schools. Ignored is the obvious: that here is a St. Paul school spending more than $11,000 per student per year that let a book shortage problem fester for more than two years until it erupted into a crisis. And all the while, the school is spending that $11K per student somewhere. Makes one wonder: What priorities did the school system place above buying books for kids?

Stern, who's documented the success Catholic schools have in educating thousands of children from New York City's poor and minority families, anted this thought: "I bet in the same neighborhood [as Maxfield], you'll find the Catholic schools aren't having this problem."

He was right.

"I can't imagine that situation," Molly Whinnery, principal of St. Mark's, told me. "We receive $62 per student from the state to purchase non-religious books. And we have a line item in the annual budget for classroom books and a separate account for library books."

St. Mark's spends a little less than $4,200 a year per student.

When I asked Immaculate Heart of Mary-St. Luke's principal Mary Mitzuk about books and finances, she replied, "Let me grab a copy of our annual report to parents so I give you accurate numbers."

An annual financial report from a school? For parents?

"Our goal is to be very transparent with our parents," said Mitzuk. "We want to be user-friendly and win the confidence of parents that we're spending their tuition money wisely."

Tuition at IHM-St. Luke's is $3,110 for parishioners and $4,175 for non-parishioners.

How these Catholic schools and others accomplish all that they do with the money they have is the subject for another column. So is conveying the uplifting enthusiasm for educating kids I heard from these principals. Sol Stern reminds us why such an alternative to government education is vital:

"Coming to school choice as a disappointed supporter of the public schools, I believe that if you have a school that is destroying children, then it's morally incumbent on society to provide the opportunity [e.g. vouchers or tax credits] for those children to get out and find a school that works for them."

"I don't think it's 'pounding' on public schools to expect them to do their job" Stern said responding to a question. I agree. Not to hold public schools accountable for basic education functions — like supplying books — that non-public schools are able to do at less than half the cost is, well … "nuts."