Talk to parents and honest educators in Connecticut's poorest
cities, and most will tell you that there aren't enough magnet
schools to hold the students who would bolt from urban public
schools if they had an alternative.
Low-income families are catching on to the idea that as long as
public schools remain their only option, the achievement gap between
poor nonwhite students and their middle-class suburban counterparts
will never close.
The Connecticut Mastery Test, which was created 20 years ago to
help close the gap, offers the best evidence of the gap's endurance.
Articles written about CMT results often carry the reminder that
large numbers of low-income minority children continue to lag far
behind white middle-class children.
They lag because school officials, who forever promise to narrow
the gap, also embrace the theory that economic deprivation makes
low-income black and Latino students hopelessly difficult to educate.
A study commissioned by Mayor Eddie Perez noted, for example,
that the Hartford school system places many students on a remedial
curriculum track from the moment they enter ninth grade until they
graduate - if they graduate. While there, the students take simplified
courses that don't meet the minimal requirements for college entrance.
Even the well-intentioned magnet schools are based in part on
the bigoted concept that if you mix poor dark kids in with middle-class
white kids, the innate genius of the whites will magically rub
Urban lawmakers know in their hearts that the children they represent
are not unilaterally dumb. They also know that thousands of low-income
parents would welcome an affordable alternative to public school
that guarantees better results.
Yet these leaders continue to defend a system that applies the
poor-kids-are-dumb presumption as the basis for every costly, ineffective
close-the-gap scheme that comes along. They should instead be demanding
state-funded private school vouchers as a sure-fire avenue to a
More than 400 low-income families in Hartford, Bridgeport and
New Haven already educate their children in high-standard private
schools through a 10-year-old privately funded voucher program
called the Children's Educational Opportunities Foundation, the
Connecticut affiliate of a national advocacy group originally funded
by Wal-Mart heir John Walton.
The CEO Foundation, according to director Donald Wilson in Hartford,
covers 50 percent of tuition up to $1,700, enough to get a child
into a decent parochial school. Variations of government-funded
voucher programs have been implemented in Milwaukee, Cleveland
and Washington, D.C.
Wilson said that almost all of the Connecticut CEO Foundation
recipients perform at or above grade level. Unfortunately, the
foundation's endowment, less than $2 million from private individuals
and corporations, isn't enough to cover the demand.
Research by admittedly pro-voucher professors Paul Peterson and
Carolyn Hoxby of Harvard University and Jay Greene of the Manhattan
Institute found that students - particularly African Americans
- who used vouchers to switch to private schools had better test
scores than they did in public school.
Publicly funded vouchers were originally said to violate the constitutional
principle of church-state separation because recipients were likely
to use them to attend parochial schools. But the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled in 2002 that the religious affiliation of the private schools
that accept them is irrelevant.
Today's argument is that government-funded vouchers undermine
public education by luring away the most promising low-income students
- and the state money to instruct them - leaving urban public schools
to deal with the hard-luck cases left behind.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Motivated students shouldn't
be trapped in an inadequate system simply because their parents
don't earn enough to place them elsewhere.
Government-funded vouchers won't happen easily. Teacher unions
will try to crush anything they perceive as putting their members'
paychecks at risk.
Nevertheless, providing poor children with equal access to a quality
education is civil right worth fighting for. Once urban lawmakers
speak up and put government-funded private school vouchers in play,
the state will be hard pressed to ignore them.
Let's level the educational playing field and see who's really
David Medina is an editorial writer at The Courant.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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