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Jewish World Review June 8, 2001 / 18 Sivan, 5761

Stanley Crouch

Amity Shlaes
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A School Succeeds, A Union Fails -- HARLEM'S Family Academy celebrated its first decade of existence Monday. As with KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) in the South Bronx, the academy is a public school bent on raising the quality of education in low-income communities and equally bent on raising student performance in a town where nearly three-quarters of low-income students drop out every year.

When David Liben, Meredith Liben and Christina Forstmann Giammalva got the academy going in 1991, they were aided by the late Nicholas Forstmann, Giammalva's uncle. Forstmann was one of those farsighted business leaders who understand the importance of reinventing public schools so that our most valuable resources the young are appropriately nurtured.

The Family Academy has elevated the test scores of its children from the very bottom to near the top and is about to expand into Washington in an educational partnership with Hyde Schools. And the academy has received approval from Gov. Pataki to establish a health clinic on its campus, which will mean top-notch medical care for students and their families.

With its longer school day and 11-month school year, the Family Academy is one of those institutions proving, student by student, that public education can do a far better job than it has been doing.

As I moved through the crowd at the party celebrating the academy's first decade, I found that everyone with whom I talked agreed with my feeling that the great enemy of public education at this moment is not the city, state or federal governments. It is the teachers union.

As one left-wing acquaintance of mine said earlier that day: "That's a hard piece for progressives to face these days that the union itself is the obstacle to better education for working and underclass people."

That's because the union is dedicated not to excellent education, but rather to employment, salary increases and benefits. All unions should have those concerns. But the teachers union also should be able to let the proverbial chips fall where they may when it is obvious that a member is out of line or performing incompetently.

That, however, is not what teacher contracts are about, which is why the incompetent are so hard to remove.

Syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington has been selected by a philanthropist to head a movement to have parents demand of the federal government that the schools be bettered. What needs to be done, if such a movement evolves, is to get a commitment from the teachers union to first-class teaching performance. Most unions nowadays are willing to push for quality performance from their members. Why should the teachers union be different?

Were the teachers union, schools like the Family Academy and the families of public school children to come together and work out the logistics necessary to achieve these goals, the cities, the states and the feds would have to join them. Then the revolution in public education would spread from sea to shining sea.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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