Monday, September 5, 2005

Let's Educate the Educators

By Mitchell

Hadleyblogger Karen recommended this piece by Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten (the blue light of reason in the red Star) on how private schools can help poor students. Now, the traditional weapon used by the public education establishment against private schools is that they can pick and choose among students, meaning they don't have to deal with the problem children that public schools struggle with. Kersten punctures this liberal myth, first of all by calling out the National "Education" Association for their attack on Wal-Mart (I'm no fan of Wal-Mart myself, but fair is fair, and it's always fun to see the NEA's ulterior motives at work):

Recently, the National Education Association -- the nation's largest teachers union -- called on parents to boycott Wal-Mart, in part to protest the "anti-public education activities" of founder Sam Walton's son, John Walton.

Walton's "anti-public education" sin? He co-founded the Children's Scholarship Fund, which gives tuition dollars to low-income children whose parents believe they would do better in private schools.

Now, as Kersten points out, the Children's Scholarship Fund has done fine work here in the Twin Cities, working with Kids First to give families school choice. Kersten goes on to tell the story of several kids that fall right into the category that the NEA likes to flaunt -

I stopped first at Mary Collins' home on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. Collins' sons, Lamar, 11, and Donte, 9, attend St. Peter Claver School in St. Paul on Kids First scholarships.

Seeing Lamar and Donte, bright-eyed and beaming, you'd never guess that they -- like Collins' seven other adopted children -- were born with drugs in their systems. They were crack babies, found cowering under a bed after a crack house raid eight years ago.

"All my children came to me with severe medical problems," says Collins, who subsists on government adoption subsidies. Some of the older children attended St. Paul public schools. "But they seemed lost there," she says. "Classes weren't structured enough."

The younger boys found exactly what they need at St. Peter Claver. "The academics are rigorous, the classroom environment is disciplined and harmonious, and teachers tell me just what to do about my boys' special learning needs," Collins says.

How could this be? St. Peter Claver, whose students are nearly 100 percent minority and low-income, has far fewer resources than St. Paul public schools. It spends about $5,000 annually per pupil, while St. Paul schools with similar demographics generally spend around $11,000. And the Collins boys are precisely the kind of "special needs" kids who are supposed to soak up resources.

The answer, according to Mary Collins? Moral vision.

"The public schools have signs on the walls -- 'Respect others,' 'Be nice,' " she explains. "But they can't tell the students why they should do these things, which can be difficult. It's a moral issue for public schools. They think it crosses the church-state line."


Lamar and Donte tick off the virtues they're learning: honesty, responsibility, respect, generosity. They both like school uniforms. "If you wear jeans and an armless shirt, then it's like you don't want to learn," Donte explains. St. Peter Claver, adds their mother, expects students to "dress for success."

"Our principal tells us that black students should be leaders, not followers," says Lamar.

Yes, you say, but that's just one family. OK, let's try another:

In Minneapolis I met another Kids First family: Chalnicea Smith and her 12-year-old daughter, Musulyn Myers. Smith, a single mother, recently lost her job as a home health aide. Musulyn is in seventh grade at Ascension School in north Minneapolis.

Musulyn was out of control in her public school kindergarten, says Smith. "She was suspended -- in kindergarten! I was being called to school all the time. At the end of the year, I vowed, 'She's not going back.' "

Musulyn's conduct improved dramatically when she switched to Ascension, whose students are 95 percent minority and nearly 60 percent low-income. Again, the school's moral vision was key.

"Ascension teaches the kids a clear sense of right and wrong," says Smith. "Every day, they learn self-discipline, trustworthiness, kindness and gratitude." The school uniform, she adds, is a constant symbol of this moral code. "It shows that school is about what you learn, not how you look."

That last comment reminds me of Judie's line after seeing the back-to-school fashions being advertised: "Looks like you've got two styles to choose from - hooker or homeless."

You notice one theme that runs through Kersten's story? Moral values. Moral authority. The one thing that isn't taught in public schools, where authority, when it is exercised at all, lacks any kind of context to give students a reason to accept it.

The public school establishment in this country doesn't have the interests of children at heart. They're a lobby group trying to protect the power and influence of its members, and justify its own existance. They keep going to the public with one referendum after another to keep raising taxes, even as the number of children attending public school decreases. It's all a power game for them. (I don't mean to implicate all public school teachers in this statement; many of them are dedicated teachers who don't feel the union speaks for them.)

Clearly, faith plays a role in the success of these students. It's too bad groups like the NEA don't have the faith to accept it. But they have faith only in themselves, and the god called government to which they pray, every legislative session when it's time to make out the budget. And worshipping this god, just like all the small "g" gods that have ever existed on this earth, is ultimately doomed to failure. The shame is, it takes so many good and innocent people down with it.

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