Friday, October 30, 2009

Sen. Meeks, Columnist Eric Zorn and TV show host Berkowitz discuss education, parental responsibility and school vouchers, charters and school choice

State Sen. James Meeks, a popular South Side minister, writes an op-ed today -- Their blood is on our hands -- about the ongoing, chronic problem of youths being murdered in Chicago. [Read here]. Berkowitz's journalism mentor and good friend, Chicago Tribune columnist and father of Chicago blogging, Eric Zorn, sought to respond to Meeks, paragraph by paragraph. Berkowitz conversed a bit with Zorn by email, as they do from time to time, and Zorn suggested Berkowitz formalize the dialogue, which he has endeavored to do, below. You may want to visit Zorn’s blog, so that you can read the comments on this matter, which are interesting in and of themselves, as well as his other posts.
Meeks: We like to point to irresponsible kids and uncaring parents. But what about a society that won't lift a finger to do anything about the crumbling, disastrous school system that all of these kids, victims and violators, come from?

Zorn: Chicagoans who examine their property tax bills in the mail this week will choke on this idea that they're not "lifting a finger" to do anything about the schools. They're paying a lot -- lifting their fingers at work literally for weeks every year in most cases solely to support the schools.

Berkowitz: Meeks doesn't think low-income parents are getting enough of an educational subsidy. Zorn's right, in part. The problem is not the lack of subsidy, which is what Zorn is saying, in part. The problem is that the parents of low income kids do not have the power to remove their kids and the money that is being spent on them from the failing public schools and transfer that money to the school of their choice. [Zorn unfortunately is not saying this, but Meeks seems to be coming around to this point of view.] When schools need to compete to keep or attract students and their money, they will think of ways to deal with what are admittedly very difficult problems in the inner city schools. It may also be that the expenditures in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) and other inner city areas are not distributed equally. It would not surprise me to learn that, say, the schools serving kids from the top 15% of income earners in Chicago consume, say, 30% of the tax dollars. If so, that would leave the bottom 85% of income earners with 70%of the resources. Even if so, the greater problem for educational outcomes is the lack of parental empowerment issue, not the disproportionate distribution of educational resources. Of course, Meeks might reasonably argue that suburbs, whose school districts remain largely outside the control of Chicago, spend more on their kids than Chicago does on its kids. Meeks is probably right, but that still should not be his focus. The CPS spends $15,000 per kid per year. That should be enough to educate, on average, virtually anybody.

Meeks: Poor and minority schools are staffed by the least qualified teachers.

Zorn: To the extent that this is true, it may reflect simple, obvious market forces at work rather than a conspiracy at the highest levels to shift good teachers to wealthier schools. Teaching at "troubled" schools is really hard work, from everything I've ever heard or read. It's frustrating. It can be dangerous. Who could blame a teacher for preferring -- even at the cost of lower wages -- to work with well-behaved, engaged, prepared students whose parents are involved and supportive?

Berkowitz: Zorn is partially right. The market forces he cites are at work. However, under a voucher system, private schools would be free to offer better teachers more money than inferior teachers. Better could mean smarter teachers in terms of grades or SAT scores. But, it could also mean teachers who figured out how to compensate for lack of parental involvement, fewer books in the home, more drugs in the home, etc. In the CPS, as in the suburbs and the rest of the country, teachers are paid based on the number of years they have been teaching and the number of years of graduate school attended or kinds of graduate school of education degrees obtained (M.A. or Ph.D). Years of education or Education School degrees obtained may have little to do with who is the best teacher. This general issue is known as merit pay. But, often, “merit pay,” is not merit pay. Arne Duncan introduced a system in which everyone who worked at a school got paid more if the students improved. That obviously was not merit pay. Nevertheless, that “innovation,” of Duncan was one reason given for his elevation to Secretary of Education by President Obama.

Meeks: When a child reaches high school at a fifth-grade reading level, society offers no hope, no future and illiteracy as a way of life because we have failed that child for eight years.

Zorn: When a child reaches high school at a fifth-grade reading level, he or she either has learning disabilities (which strike across the socio-economic spectrum and do need to be addressed by specialists) or he or she has not been spending enough time reading for the past eight years. Why is this our failure?

Berkowitz: It is our failure because as responsible citizens we should expect our CPS, that spends $15,000 per kid per year to be able to teach kids, at an early age, how to read and to make sure they do enough reading to master that skill. And, if the CPS can’t do that, we, as responsible citizens and journalists, should put pressure on Mayor Daley and state legislators to let the CPS parents take their $15,000 that we are spending on their kids now and let them transfer it to schools that couldn’t do any worse. Indeed, empirical studies of school vouchers in Cleveland, Milwaukee and DC mostly show that voucher kids do as well or better than non school-voucher kids. So, Eric, what exactly do we have to lose by allowing some empowerment for low=income parents?

Meeks: Without question, the lack of preparedness of students leads to despair, disruption and ultimately violence.

Zorn: My own pet theory, since we're clearly trafficking in pet theories here, is that joblessness and the poverty that attends it is what leads to despair, disruption and ultimately violence. If the parents of these students had good jobs and provided stable homes, the families would have concrete, realistic aspirations for the students -- hope, if I may use a word that's now cliche -- and the students would do better in school.

Zorn: Don't believe me? Do you think it's simply the quality of teaching that generates such vastly higher academic performances in wealthier and more stable communities (of all races and ethnicities)? Or do you think it's because kids whose parents have decent jobs and decent incomes have greater incentives and more motivation?

Berkowitz: Zorn is now asking how can we make sure that all low-income earners become high income earners, and preferably overnight. That’s really, really hard to do, Eric. But, something we can do is to change the system so that low-income parents are empowered to spend their $15,000 per kid in a way that motivates competition by private schools to try really hard to teach their kids how to read, write and do arithmetic, as we used to say. The schools that do that really well will expand and those that don’t will go out of business. The main beneficiaries of this change will be low-income parents whose kids will learn how to read by the time they start high school. Competition, the patron saint of the consumer.

Meeks: Nobody wants to be held accountable, but the blood of every child is on our hands.

Zorn: My sense is that overheated, accusatory rhetoric like this annoys rather than galvanizes the average person. Or maybe I just speak for myself.

Berkowitz: Eric, sometimes a little drama is appropriate. Fifteen years ago, the Illinois State Legislature almost adopted a pilot program for school vouchers. But, the teachers unions pressured the legislators to back off. Mayor Daley did start a reform program that accomplished some things under Paul Vallas. But, Vallas left in 2001 and the CPS stagnated under Duncan, with standardized tests being changed to show false improvements [Which Arne Duncan admitted on Face the Nation a month ago]. The CPS is now going backwards.

Berkowitz: Given the above track record, I certainly don’t mind a little overheated, accusatory rhetoric from Senator Meeks. The man is justified, Eric.

Meeks: For the first time in my personal and political career, I am exploring the idea of vouchers and charter schools to help facilitate choice and enhance academic performance. Why should we continue to make investments in a system that is bankrupt and weighed down with bureaucracy?

Zorn: My problem with voucher-based education is that it relies on a level of parental involvement that's manifestly missing and on a free-market system that is failing the inner-city already. Not that there is any easy answer, but these communities need jobs and affordable housing, far lower single-parent birth rates and, yes, calm, safe focused classrooms in which students can learn and teachers can teach.

Berkowitz: On this, Eric Zorn couldn’t be more wrong. All the parent of a school voucher child has to do is once a year be provided some information about alternative schools and make a choice: either stay put in one of the 60% or so public schools in Chicago that is failing or opt out for a private school that might do better and almost assuredly can’t do any worse. I imagine the likes of Rev. Meeks, Rev. Jackson, Eric Zorn, Anne Duncan, Jeff Berkowitz, local ministers, local educators, local business people, Carol Marin, goo goo reformers, etc. could hold meetings, go door to door and make recommendations as to which private schools were best and ultimately the individual parents would make a decision.

Berkowitz: What we have found, over the centuries, is that individuals, no matter how poorly educated or motivated, make much better decisions for themselves than others, and certainly than a state appointed czar. We have enough czars these days, we don’t need anymore. What we need is a little bit of freedom for the individual to choose. You could say I am pro-Choice. School Choice, that is.

Berkowitz: Further, Carolyn Hoxby, a professor of Economics at the Hoover Institution (who used to teach at Harvard) has recently published a study that demonstrated that the importance of parental motivation can be somewhat overstated in educational performance. Dr. Hoxby studied charter school performance where admission was based on lottery. Thus, students who attended the charter schools and those that did not came from similar socio-economic backgrounds with similar levels of parental involvement. Yet, the charter school students outperformed those attending traditional public schools. Similar studies exist for school voucher student performance v. traditional school student performance.

Berkowitz: As to Zorn’s statements that “a free-market system is failing the inner-city already,” I don’t know what he could possibly mean. As of now, low income parents have little or no purchasing power to spend on education. So, there is virtually no free market system at work. Most of the private schools in the inner city are parochial schools that provide small numbers of scholarships. Or, private individuals and businesses provide “opportunity scholarships,” aka school vouchers.

Berkowitz: With school vouchers, low-income individuals would have substantial purchasing power. In Cleveland, Milwaukee and DC, the school vouchers are not fully funded and yet work quite well. Fully fund them at $15,000 per kid, per year, and I assure you, the free market would work quite well to provide successful alternatives to the CPS.

Meeks: Since the will to change the system is nonexistent, we should allow students the flexibility to attend schools outside their district.

Zorn: An interesting idea, the logistics of which boggle the mind. Even if we could pull it off, though, and allow certain, motivated students to flee, the basic problem they are fleeing -- joblessness and its attendant poverty -- will remain.

Berkowitz: Firstly, this is a second best to school vouchers. Under school vouchers, parents can choose to send their kids outside their local area, but they would not have to because quality private schools would be built near by. Secondly, the political difficulties of designing a “public school,” choice system are enormous and therefore such a system is unlikely to be offered. School vouchers, on the other hand, are primarily blocked by teachers’ unions who put pressure on state legislators to block them. Those unions present obstacles, but they can be overcome if people like Rev./Senator Meeks and Chicago Tribune columnist and [Father of Chicago blogging] Eric Zorn are willing to stand up to them.

Berkowitz: Thirdly, Zorn sniffs “certain, motivated students could flee.” implying other students would be left behind, and therefore it is not a good solution. A similar argument is sometimes made against school vouchers, i.e., it is said maybe half the students would leave but the other half- those with less motivated parents—would be left behind. However, I do think in most cases all the students at failing public schools could and would leave, certainly if a fully funded, $15,000 school voucher were offered.

Berkowitz: But, if only half the students could attend voucher schools, wouldn’t you let those students go. If half the students go and half the money goes, how are the remaining students worse off? If your house were on fire, and you could save only two of your four kids, would you say—“Oh, let them all burn.” I don’t think so. I mean, let all my people go. But, if Moses could only save half, I am sure he would say—so, be it. Let half go.

Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at *************************************************************
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