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Before More Kids Fail, Try School Vouchers

Rick Green

April 21, 2009

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch isn't crazy about school vouchers.

But the inequality of our failed system of urban education is even less appealing.

Finch, a liberal Democrat and former state senator in his first term as mayor, stunned observers not long ago when he unexpectedly suggested that using public money to pay for children to go to private schools might help his financially strapped city out -- and provide some hope for poor, minority children.

"It's a shock when you become the mayor of a Connecticut city," said Finch, faced with laying off teachers, shutting programs and perhaps even closing schools this year.

"There is no there, there," he said, bluntly describing his city's inability to pay for vital services.

"We could send children to private school in our city for a fraction of what we spend on public schools," he said. "We need to reduce the number of children in the public school system."

Private schools -- and we're talking Catholic schools -- can do the job "just as well," said Finch. His endorsement of vouchers is based in reality, not antipathy toward public education or some new-found belief in the free market.

He's watching another generation fail.

It's as simple as this: We have been unable to come up with a way to fund public education so that our neediest children get what they need.

Finch's schools are growing more crowded while he sees empty seats in parochial schools.

This makes it pretty hard to argue that the system is working.

Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan cautioned me that while "these are desperate moments for Bridgeport," it is not time to turn away from public schools.

"I don't know that vouchers have proved to be a worthy mechanism or tool to assist poor students," he said. "The real issue is not vouchers but to have adequate funding."

This is what a long line of education commissioners, mayors and urban superintendents of schools have concluded for decades. But what do you do when the politicians and the courts can't come up with a better system? While we wait, the nation's biggest achievement gap between whites and minorities only grows wider.

That's the frustration that Finch faces in Bridgeport. At least he's looking for an immediate solution instead of waiting for a court ruling that may never come.

"I perpetuate the creation of an underclass every day I open my [schools] up, because I can't catch up," Finch explained. "I can't get my kids to catch up."

At some point somebody has to be courageous enough to try something else.

We fund schools based on how wealthy a municipality is, not where the need is.

Meanwhile, our future workforce -- the people who will pay for your retirement -- is going to come from Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, where the schools are failing.

John Cattelan, director of the Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents, said there are about 400 seats open in Catholic schools in the Bridgeport area, with another 1,000 in Hartford.

"This is a way to relieve the financial stress on these municipalities," said Cattelan, who would like to see tax credits for corporations that help fund private school scholarships.

We can declare that it isn't right to use public money at one of Cattelan's Catholic schools.

But then we must accept over-crowded schools and inferior programs for city children who are years behind their suburban counterparts.

It's what voucher advocate Jay Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, calls "a very uncomfortable choice."

"For how long," Greene asked me, "can you say we don't need vouchers because you are going to improve public schools?"

Finch isn't willing to wait. That's far better than pretending we're fixing the problem.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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