Sunday, December 14, 2008

Discrimination against blacks still there in American public Schools

Nothing dramatizes the two-tier public-education system quite like the announcement by the First Couple that their daughters, 10 and 7, will attend Sidwell Friends, perhaps the elitist of the elite private schools in Washington, tuition $30,000 a year. "Sidwell," the parents joke, "is where Episcopalians teach Jews how to be Quakers." The Obamas called Sidwell, as the locals refer to it, the "best fit" of security and comfort for their children. No doubt. Few begrudge the Parents in Chief seeking the best education money can buy. It's easier than choosing a puppy.

Unfortunately, most Americans don't have that kind of opportunity or that kind of money, particularly in Washington, where the public schools are, to put it kindly, lousy. These schools are distinguished for the lowest performance rates of any school district in the nation despite spending $13,000 per pupil, third highest in the country.

No congressman sends his children to public schools in the nation's capital. More than a quarter of the teachers in the public schools send their children to private school. The Obamas noted that their friends, many of whom will become colleagues on the White House staff, send their daughters to private schools. Joe Biden's grandchildren will go to school with the Obama girls. Chelsea Clinton went to Sidwell and then on to Stanford and Oxford. President Carter sent his daughter Amy to a public school for a while, but soon reconsidered and sent her to Sidwell and then to Brown. Private-school education doesn't determine acceptance to an elite college, but it makes it easier.

Though Washington has several good charter schools, which are funded with public money and run independently of the public-school bureaucracy, their capacity is limited. (The Obama girls would likely have made the cut.) My grandsons attend one, and there's a long waiting list. Charters are not burdened with platinum-plated union contracts and "teacher tenure" designed to protect the incompetents.

Reforms are vehemently opposed by the American Federation of Teachers, the big umbrella union with lots of clout. Beholden as he is to the unions, the president-elect is not likely to offend them. He has emphatically opposed vouchers because they "might benefit some kids at the top; what you're going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom." Unlike his own kids, who have already fled.

Few parents (and grandparents) I've talked to envy the Obamas for their presidential privileges -- the servants and limousines and the big Boeing 747 -- but they truly envy their ability to educate their children in a good school. Michelle Obama insists that her daughters will make their own beds and won't rely on the servants, and good for her. But neither will they get a glimpse of how most of the children in Washington, the majority of whom are black, suffer from an inferior education. That's a vividly drawn line dividing childhood friendships.

The public schools were segregated by race when I grew up in Washington. They're segregated just as rigidly today by economic class, as schools are in many cities, and the result is all but the same -- public schools for blacks, private schools for whites. I once took my son out of a public school because his American history teacher was absent more days than she was on the job; in one conversation, she couldn't identify the fourth president of the United States without consulting her lesson plan, and was not embarrassed for it. She was protected, as incompetent teachers are protected today, by union-backed tenure.

Michelle Rhee, the tough new chancellor of the Washington schools who gets more grief than thanks for trying to do something about the quality of education, offered teachers who agree to give up tenure considerably higher pay. Most declined. They know what we know -- that few could pass merit muster.

In the bad old days, Southerners often said they would be happy to send their children to school with the likes of the children of Ralph Bunche, the secretary-general of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but not with the children the elite private schools wouldn't take. Such thinking was, of course, racist. Nobody would say such a thing today. But many poor black (and white) children get a public school education in the ghettos that wouldn't prepare them for Sidwell Friends even if their parents could afford it.

Administrative and economic racism, which President Bush called "the bigotry of low expectations," dooms these children, and perpetuates prejudice, as well. Racism, like that rose by any other name, still smells -- but it's not sweet.


German Family Freed from Criminal Charges for Homeschooling

After living under a cloud of criminal charges since 2007, the Brause family in Germany has finally been cleared of criminal child neglect for having homeschooled their five children. On December 2nd, Johannes Hildebrandt of the International Human Rights Group (IHRG), who had assisted the family's legal battle, reported that the German court and the prosecutor are dropping charges against Mr. and Mrs. Brause. The Brouses had paid several fines and faced up to 2 years in prison as well as the potential loss of their children, who had been placed under the custody of the youth welfare office, or Jugendamt, since March 2007.

The children - Rosine, Jotham, Kurt-Simon, Lovis and Ernst - were allowed to stay at home during this time but were vulnerable to seizure by the government at any moment unless their parents submitted to the government's demands and enrolled them in public school. "We are pleased that the court and the prosecuting counsel asked whether the process can be ended," said Joel Thornton, President and General Counsel for the IHRG. The decision came after the court received a detailed psychiatric assessment proving that no psychological harm was done to the children from homeschooling. The two eldest children also proved their scholastic aptitude by successfully completing public school exams.

The Brause family may now choose whether to have a sentence of acquittal in a public meeting in court, or a document issued declaring the process closed and the charges dropped. The decision is being hailed as a major victory for families' right to choose education in Germany, where homeschooling has been illegal since the Third Reich. Chancellor Adolf Hitler banned private schooling in 1938 in order to indoctrinate Nazi ideology through public schools, and created the Jugendamt in 1939 to supervise German families.

Human rights groups have been strongly critical of Germany's totalitarian policies on education and the activities of the Jugendamt, which gained negative press when cracking down on another homeschooling family about the same time last year. After the Buskeros family consistently refused to return their 15-year-old daughter Melissa to public school, fifteen police officers forcibly seized the girl and placed her in a foster home in a location undisclosed to her parents, during which time she was allowed to see her family once a week.

Despite igniting outrage from Christians and human rights activists around the world, the German government continued to hold Melissa against her will, while falsely claiming to German media that the teen was happy in state custody. Practically the instant midnight struck on her 16th birthday, however - an age carrying greater independence under German law - Melissa left the foster home and arrived on her family's doorstep at 3 a.m., after almost three months away from home.


Elite British universities discriminate against academic merit

More than half of leading universities discriminate in favour of students from deprived backgrounds, sparking a fresh row over "social engineering". An official report reveals the majority of institutions belonging to the elite Russell Group show favour to sixth-formers from poor-performing schools. One in five give priority to applicants' whose parents missed out on higher education. And 53 per cent of universities take students' "family problems" into account as an admissions tiebreaker.

According to the report, Nottingham - which traditionally attracts more applicants than any other university - said students' A-level grades "may be valued more highly" if applicants were refugees or came from the traveller community, poor homes or a family without a history of going to university.

Last night, it prompted claims that children were being "punished" for attending a good school. Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "This will inevitable lead to someone with great potential, who doesn't tick all these boxes, being deprived of his or her rightful place. Social engineering like this can only weaken the university system and leave a sour taste in the mouth of many parents who see their bright and hard-working children denied places on social grounds."

The disclosure was made in a Government-backed study published four years after a landmark commission on fair access to university. The 2004 report, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, the former vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said institutions had to take a "wider view" of an applicant's potential to close the gap between the number of students admitted from professional and unskilled homes.

In the latest study, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions unit, based at Sheffield Hallam University, said many "positive changes" had been made by universities in light of the Schwartz Report. It surveyed almost three-quarters of universities and colleges. Four in 10 vice-chancellors and principals said "should choose students partly in order to achieve a social mix".

The report said the 20-strong Russell Group - which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, Nottingham and St Andrews - were most likely to use admissions procedures to achieve a mixed student body. More than half of all universities - 51 per cent - said it was fair to make lower-grade offers to sixth formers from poor-performing schools and deprived homes.

Among Russell Group members, 53 per cent considered whether students attended a "low-achieving school" or had family problems, 40 per cent marked-up students in local authority care, 40 per cent favoured candidates with disabilities and 20 per cent looked favourably on those without university-educated parents.

Earlier this year, an investigation by the Telegraph found the London School of Economics, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Edinburgh were among those allowing staff to admit students from poor-performing comprehensives with worse A-levels than those from top schools.

Dr Wendy Piatt, Russell Group director general, said: "A-level qualifications are a key source of information about academic ability but we do not just rely on exam grades. Russell Group universities take a range of factors and information into account to ensure that we can identify the candidates with the most potential to excel on our courses - whatever their social or educational background."

David Lammy, Higher Education Minister, said: "Creating a transparent and open admissions process is crucial to ensuring fair access and maintaining public confidence in our universities and colleges."


Too many uni students cry poor

By Ross Gittins, a Left-leaning Australian economist

I like to think I care about the plight of the less fortunate. But if you feel sorry for everyone with a hard-luck story you debase the currency. So one of the groups I've never had much sympathy for is self-pitying university students. They're middle-class kids pretending to be poor and deserving, whereas they're actually setting themselves up for a life of well-above-average earnings. The few years of their life they spend having to scrimp and save won't do them any harm. It might teach them to have some concern for the genuinely needy.

Psychologists say we read less for enlightenment than to reinforce our existing opinions, and I found much to support my prejudices in last week's report on the private costs of tertiary education, prepared by the University of Canberra's National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling for AMP. Let's start with the much maligned Higher Education Contribution Scheme. When the Howard government was increasing HECS payments we got used to reading scandalised reports about how the cost of a medical degree for someone having to buy their way into uni had blown out to almost $200,000. As is the media's wont, this was an extreme example. Turns out that for students graduating last year, their average total fee was $20,500. That's less than you'd borrow to buy a car.

The report estimates that it takes the average single male or female seven or eight years to pay off the HECS debt. Does that sound a long time? It's certainly longer than you'd be given to pay off most commercial loans. But that's a sign of the generosity of the scheme. You don't have to start making repayments until your income hits $41,600 a year ($800 a week), at which point the repayments start at $32 a week. The report estimates that it may take a male sole parent with two children as long as 14 years to repay his debt, while a female sole parent in similar circumstances may never get her debt paid off.

Does that sound bad? It's actually good. The point of the scheme is that your repayments are geared to your income, so that if you don't earn much - or don't earn anything while you're off minding kids - the Government will wait as long as it takes for its money. And, unlike any commercial lender, it doesn't charge a real interest rate while it waits. To me, the fact that sole parents fallen on hard times may never be required to repay the charge for their education is a virtue, not a vice.

It's sometimes objected that lumbering our young graduates with all this debt must surely reduce their ability to afford a home of their own. But the report finds little evidence to support this fear - which is hardly surprising. Why? Because the greatest impediment to owning a home isn't having to repay a HECS debt, it's not having the high salary that goes with being a uni graduate. That, to me, is the point. When you become a university graduate you're translated to the ranks of the privileged in our community.

Professor Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University estimates that, on average, the lifetime earnings of graduates are about 70 per cent greater than for those who went only to year 12. That difference averages more than $1.5 million, even after you allow for the earnings students forgo when they study full-time. And we're supposed to feel sorry for kids who can't buy everything they want for a few years while they qualify to enter the winners' circle?

It's not just more income that being a graduate gets you, of course. Graduates tend to have jobs that are cleaner, safer, more secure and more intellectually satisfying. They're far less likely to be out of work during their lives. And they ought to have had their minds opened to wonders of the world. It's these private benefits to possessors of a tertiary education that justify the Government requiring them to contribute towards the cost of that education. But the report finds our uni fees are third highest among developed countries.

Even that's not quite as bad as it sounds. Our fees are about a third lower than students pay in Japan, about a quarter lower than in the United States and not much higher than in Canada. What's more, few countries allow their university fees to be paid on the generous terms we do. With us, you don't have to pay a cent until you've graduated and are earning a decent salary, nor do you ever pay a real interest rate. The scheme was designed that way to ensure the fees didn't deter kids from poor families from going to uni.

But just how deprived are uni students? Well, two-thirds of full-time uni students under 25 live at home, so they're probably not doing too badly. Some of these would be eligible for the Government's youth allowance but most wouldn't because their parents' incomes are too high. More than 60 per cent of full-time uni students of all ages have jobs. Forty per cent work up to 19 hours a week, 15 per cent work between 20 and 34 hours a week and 6 per cent work full-time.

Full-time students under 25 who live in group households have earnings averaging only about a third of the earnings of full-time workers under 25 living in group households - $270 a week versus $820 a week. But, on average, the students spend $540 a week each, which is only about 20 per cent less than the $690 a week the workers spend.

That tells us two things. First, the students can't be greatly deprived and, second, they must still be being propped up by their parents even though they've left home. Sounds to me, if anything, it's the students' parents we should feel sorry for. But I bet the kids don't see it that way.


No comments: