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Jewish World Review May 2, 2002 / 20 Iyar, 5762

John H. Fund

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Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools | NEW YORK Is Sept. 11 an excuse for bad schools? That's the question that New York politicians will soon decide.

Democratic legislators and state teacher unions are pushing the argument that the attack's aftershocks on the state budget should block the opening of any new charter schools--independent public schools that operate with more flexibility and freedom--for two years. "Charter schools drain precious resources from public schools," says Assemblyman Paul Tonko, an upstate Democrat. "This extraction of funds could result in multimillion-dollar shortfalls for local school systems." His bill would stop the opening of a dozen charter schools in the state that have already been approved for operation. To date, only 32 charter schools have been allowed to open, in part because of bureaucratic resistance.

Charter-school supporters, who gathered for a rally yesterday at Manhattan's South Street Seaport, couldn't disagree more. "I have a school that's in the middle of opening," says Jerry Jennings, the Democratic mayor of Albany, the state capital. Albany already has the promising New Covenant charter school managed by Edison Schools, and is set to open the Brighter Choice charter school in September.

In fact, charters are a bargain, says Lisa Coldwell O'Brien, president of the state's Charter Schools Association. "Charters get only 70% of what the public schools spend per student, so the district doesn't lose money if kids go to charters." Rochester public schools spend $11,742 a student, vs. just $7,445 a year for charter schools--and charters have to erect and maintain their own buildings out of that amount.

Charter schools have exploded in popularity since the first one opened in Minnesota a decade ago. According to Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, today some 2,400 in 37 states educate nearly 600,000 students. Their academic programs are generally more vigorous than those of ordinary public schools; three of four such schools concentrate on college preparation, a back-to-basics curriculum, or a science/math emphasis.

Allegations that charter schools engage in "cream skimming" by taking the most promising students are refuted by studies in several states. In March, the Charter School Institute of the State University of New York released a study that found the 9,000 students attending charter schools in New York are the most at risk academically. On average, students at New York charters have reading skills in the 31st percentile and math skills in the 30th percentile--that is, they scored worse than roughly 70% of all students--based on national tests. Every charter school studied by the institute had an extensive waiting list.

The reasons for the waiting list are made abundantly clear by parents attending the school choice rally. Kenya Campbell is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn but she sends her own son to Community Partnership Charter School. "You can't get successful students out of the old model of public education that's now being used," she says. "You need innovation and new ideas and that's what choice in schools brings." Alnando Learpel, Community Partnership parent, echoes Ms. Campbell's thoughts: "The schools have become consumed with politics and controlled by special interests who don't put the kids first. New York City schools were the best in the country when I went to them. Now they're something parents flee from."

The main speaker at the charter school rally was Randy Daniels, New York's Democratic secretary of state. With a skill and tempo that must have been honed inside black churches, he exhorted the crowd to reject those "who don't care if your kids have a chance in life, those who oppose giving parents a choice and those who accept a system that fails to educate our young."

Sometimes the opposition to reform goes beyond mere acceptance of failure and becomes guerilla warfare. In Roosevelt, N.Y., a largely black and Hispanic Long Island suburb, Zena Zahran and other black parents helped open a charter school. The local school board attacked it as a tool of white interests, and a black church refused to let it meet on its premises. Ms. Zahran told the Washington Post that many black leaders "are caught up in an Uncle Tom complex where if someone is trying to help or raise questions, it's portrayed as a threat to black power."

The school board stalled on paying the salaries of the charter school's teachers, as was required by state law, for almost a year. The school would have closed if Steven Klinsky, the leading private manager of charter schools in New York state, hadn't stepped in and advanced the school the money out of his own personal funds.

Mr. Klinsky is pessimistic about the political future of charter schools in New York. "The Legislature did just enough to say we tried reform, but have imposed a cap of just 100 charters for the entire state. They will fight to keep the number that open below that."

Nonetheless, Mr. Klinsky said it's important to prove that charters can improve the lot of disadvantaged students, which is why he's working hard to beat the moratorium. It's clear from looking at the faces of the hundreds of students gathered here yesterday that the union-backed ban would be more than a mere moratorium on choice in schools. It would be a moratorium on the hopes and dreams of all the parents on the waiting list for charter schools that their children will get a decent "Everybody is against Gore--except education. Orlando.

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04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund