Thursday, April 09, 2009

Democrats and Poor Kids

Sitting on evidence of voucher success, and the battle of New York

Education Secretary Arne Duncan did a public service last week when he visited New York City and spoke up for charter schools and mayoral control of education. That was the reformer talking. The status quo Mr. Duncan was on display last month when he let Congress kill a District of Columbia voucher program even as he was sitting on evidence of its success.

In New York City with its 1.1 million students, mayoral control has resulted in better test scores and graduation rates, while expanding charter schools, which means more and better education choices for low-income families. But mayoral control expires in June unless state lawmakers renew it, and the United Federation of Teachers is working with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to weaken or kill it.

President Obama's stimulus is sending some $100 billion to the nation's school districts. What will he demand in return? The state budget passed by the New York legislature last week freezes funding for charters but increases it by more that $400 million for other public schools. Perhaps a visit to a charter school in Harlem would help Mr. Obama honor his reform pledge. "I'm looking at the data here in front of me," Mr. Duncan told the New York Post. "Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up. Teacher salaries are up. Social promotion was eliminated. Dramatically increasing parental choice. That's real progress."

Mr. Duncan's help in New York is in stark contrast to his department's decision to sit on a performance review of the D.C. voucher program while Congress debated its future in March. The latest annual evaluation was finally released Friday, and it shows measurable academic gains. The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides $7,500 vouchers to 1,700 low-income families in D.C. to send their children to private schools. Ninety-nine percent of the children are black or Hispanic, and there are more than four applicants for each scholarship.

The 2008 report demonstrated progress among certain subgroups of children but not everyone. This year's report shows statistically significant academic gains for the entire voucher-receiving population. Children attending private schools with the aid of the scholarships are reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who did not receive vouchers. Voucher recipients are doing no better in math but they're doing no worse. Which means that no voucher participant is in worse academic shape than before, and many students are much better off.

"There are transition difficulties, a culture shock upon entering a school where you're expected to pay attention, learn, do homework," says Jay Greene, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute. "But these results fit a pattern that we've seen in other evaluations of vouchers. Benefits compound over time."

It's bad enough that Democrats are killing a program that parents love and is closing the achievement gap between poor minorities and whites. But as scandalous is that the Education Department almost certainly knew the results of this evaluation for months.

Voucher recipients were tested last spring. The scores were analyzed in the late summer and early fall, and in November preliminary results were presented to a team of advisers who work with the Education Department to produce the annual evaluation. Since Education officials are intimately involved in this process, they had to know what was in this evaluation even as Democrats passed (and Mr. Obama signed) language that ends the program after next year.

Opponents of school choice for poor children have long claimed they'd support vouchers if there was evidence that they work. While running for President last year, Mr. Obama told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that if he saw more proof that they were successful, he would "not allow my predisposition to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn . . . You do what works for the kids." Except, apparently, when what works is opposed by unions.

Mr. Duncan's office spurned our repeated calls and emails asking what and when he and his aides knew about these results. We do know the Administration prohibited anyone involved with the evaluation from discussing it publicly. You'd think we were talking about nuclear secrets, not about a taxpayer-funded pilot program. A reasonable conclusion is that Mr. Duncan's department didn't want proof of voucher success to interfere with Senator Dick Durbin's campaign to kill vouchers at the behest of the teachers unions.

The decision to let 1,700 poor kids get tossed from private schools is a moral disgrace. It also exposes the ugly politics that lies beneath union and liberal efforts across the country to undermine mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers or any reform that threatens their monopoly over public education dollars and jobs. The Sheldon Silver-Dick Durbin Democrats aren't worried that school choice doesn't work. They're worried that it does, and if Messrs. Obama and Duncan want to succeed as reformers they need to say so consistently.


British teachers targeted in their own homes by pupils, say union delegates

More results from the destruction of discipline by Britain's Left

Teachers are being intimidated in their own homes by unruly pupils, a union has claimed. One teacher returned from work to find the word “bitch” painted across her garden wall. Another found that his car had been scratched with a key. A third had 17 windows smashed at her home, while a fourth received a series of late-night obscene calls.

These events are just a snapshot of a much bigger picture of intimidation and damage to property endured by teachers daily, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers heard at their annual conference in Liverpool.

Even when they are on school premises, teachers cannot be sure that their property is safe. In the past year the union has received 146 claims about malicious damage to property and 69 claims of damage to vehicles.

Maxine Bradshaw, a teacher from North Wales, told the conference that pupils felt that they could get away with anything. “Parents and teachers feel powerless to discipline children for fear of repercussions or, worse still, prosecution,” she said.

Even when police did get involved with cases of vandalism, it was often a waste of time, she said.

When her car was damaged by pupils from another school she was offered restorative justice — in which perpetrators meet the victims to make amends. But the youngsters “appeared to feel no remorse” and offered an insincere apology, she said.

Ian Martin, from Bristol, said that he was aware of staff facing knife threats. On one occasion the knife had been made from copper in a workshop. In another incident a former student drove to a college and fired an airgun at pupils and staff, he said.

“A member of staff teaching 16 and 17-year-olds who had recently returned to work following a triple heart bypass was subjected to a student threatening to shoot him and students,” Mr Martin said.

Ms Bradshaw said that schools should follow the policy of many other public buildings with display notices indicating that they will operate a “zero tolerance” policy towards anyone who is violent or abusive to staff.

Although violence and abusive behaviour among pupils are commonplace in many schools, teachers are given very little training in how to respond.

Wendy Hardy, a teacher in Derby who works with excluded pupils and those at risk of exclusion, said that trainee teachers were offered just one hour and fifteen minutes’ training, during three or four years of study, on how to handle challenging behaviour.

A recent survey by the union found that challenging behaviour was one of the main reasons why one in five teachers leave the profession in the first five years of their careers.

But Irene Baker, a delegate from Sefton, Merseyside, said that schools were partly to blame. Pupils knew that they could get away with bad behaviour because the worst thing that they face is a talking-to. This would leave pupils little able to cope with the world once they left school and were forced to accept the consequences of their actions, she said.

Delegates warned of creeping state censorship over a clause in the guidance to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill that would give ministers the legal power to control the content of exams. Teresa Dawes, an English teacher from Berkshire, said that the move was “chilling and frightening”. Last year a group of MPs put pressure on Britain’s biggest exam board to remove a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, Education for Leisure, from the GCSE syllabus because it refers to knife crime.


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