Sunday, March 6, 2011

In defense of vouchers...

Oh well... it appears that the Philadelphia Inquirer will not publish my letter to the editor ;-(

Here it goes...

Re: School voucher debate heats up at state hearing Philadelphia Inquirer 2/16/2011

An interesting article by Ms. Lu on the ongoing school voucher debate. Excellent points were made on both sides of the argument yet I think an important distinction be made that "public education" does not have but one definition as it depends upon your ZIP code. There is a great difference between the quality of public education a child will receive in Cherry Hill and Lower Merion as opposed to Camden and North Philadelphia. I suppose for some this "separate and unequal" model is acceptable if you're in the suburbs but to defend the status quo that mandates that generation after generation of the poor receive a substandard education is, perhaps, a mortal sin.

Personally I grow tired of the rhetoric of certain voucher opponents as the hypocrisy knows no bounds: We have a gentleman attacking vouchers for the poor who represents the affluent suburb of Haverford Township. A former Philadelphia public school superintendent, who while leading the Philadelphia public school system -- chose to send his children to private schools. We also have the current mayor of Philadelphia, a man I admire, bragging during an election commercial that "my daughter attends public school -- where else?" A surprising statement since he himself was educated at Transfiguration of Our Lord Grade School and St. Joseph's Preparatory School. That would constitute a "where else", would it not? But it sounds as if their children all received a quality education. I suppose it's laudable that they care about inner city students but I would be more impressed if their children attended those same under-performing and dangerous schools that they continue to defend. 50% of Black and Hispanic males in Philadelphia do not graduate from high school. Is this what they're defending? Should the quality of an American child's education depend solely on their parent's wealth, the ability to move to an suburb with fine public school system, or the ability to pay for a private education? Or is it time to think outside the box and let the parents, regardless of their standing in society, choose what school may be best for their children?

Of course some have already grown tired of waiting for the government's (broken) promise to provide a good education to the poor. One such group is the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) who have started the Cristo Rey initiative, with schools throughout the nation, now in over 20 inner cities. The first Cristo Rey school was founded in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, a majority Hispanic neighborhood predominated by children of undocumented aliens seeking a better life for their children. The local public school mirrored the same anemic graduation rates seen in Philadelphia. No voucher opponents, the intention was not to "skim" the best students. The Cristo Rey schools partner with businesses for an innovative work-study program for high school students called the Corporate Internship Program, whereas students work for those companies five times a month in order to pay for 67% of their tuition. They not only receive an outstanding college preparatory education but valuable work experience as well, often in industries previously unfamiliar to the kids.

I volunteered to coach basketball at a charter middle school in North Philadelphia for a few years, and you would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated group of teachers in the world. And they would be the first to tell you that it is not just about funding. Many of the 8th graders I knew would have gone on to William Penn High School, which after being named one of the Commonwealth's persistently dangerous schools (see 08-09 statistics) in seven out of nine years was finally closed. The most important component to a child's success in the classroom is the parents, and no amount of dollars directed at a school can overcome parental neglect. We as a society must do our best to eradicate the structural sins that lead to poverty. We can look at educational alternatives such as vouchers, or we can continue to build new prisons that cost $30,000 per inmate per annum. While visiting India I stood in Kolkata, on a side street, witnessing the worst poverty in the worst slum I had ever seen. I asked my friend Fr. Hansel D'Sousa what would be the cure for this. He gave a one word answer; education. So whether in North Philadelphia, Camden, or Kolkata -- the answer is the same.

A comparison can be made to the original G.I. Bill which provided college or vocational training for servicemen returning after World War II. These fixed sum payments were made to the veterans to be used for tuition payments, books and lodging. It didn't matter to the government whether the veteran chose a secular institution such as Temple University, or a religious institution such as St. Joseph's University that as part of the ratio studiorum mandated Catholic theology classes, usually taught by Jesuits. They let each veteran make their own choices where to attend school. How refreshing would it be to have another such omnibus bill passed, this one though a parents bill of rights for their children's education. To allow parents, regardless of their income level, to choose the best schools, public or private -- regardless of affiliation, for their children. To give them the same choices that only people of means have now. People in wealthy towns such as Haverford, former superintendents, and current mayors who claim to know what's best for other people's children but would never, ever send their own children to a school such as William Penn. Vouchers would allow parents to opt out of schools that no one wants to attend in favor of another public, charter, religious or non-sectarian school -- the same choice that those in the middle and upper-middle classes can now make. Vouchers are not a miracle panacea but they can and should be an option.

I also find it ironic that some on the left look to Canada and other Western nations to emulate their health care systems yet ignore the fact that those same nations financially support all of their schools, both public and private. Yet the argument that gives me a chuckle is the concern over proselytizing. A local example is the Gesu School at 17th and Thompson, once a parish school closed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but resurrected under the auspices of the Jesuits and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, that now has a Protestant president guiding the school. Approximately 80% of the children who attend the Gesu are non-Catholic. Their parents sacrifice greatly to pay the subsidized tuition and choose a faith based education for their children. Should they grow disenchanted with the school -- they can choose to send their children elsewhere. Simply put -- let the parents make the decisions.

But let's be honest -- red herring arguments against vouchers are made by those with everything to lose. Giving an opportunity for lower income families to opt out of failing public schools, to give them a choice, would not benefit the NEA or AFT at all, and only result in a decline in membership. Teachers' unions are a special interest just like the NRA and any other PAC and make their decisions based on whether it is good for their dues paying members -- not whether it is good for the society at large. So why voucher opponents and teachers' unions may be commended for their commitment to public education -- know full well that they are dooming yet another generation of children in the inner cities. And most of those will be students of color. Whether the reasons for the defense of status quo are ignorance, self-interest, or bigotry... the results are the same. And the parents of today's school children, just like their parents and their parents before, will never see their children realize the American dream. But don't look for alternatives, don't allow the poor a choice in their children's education -- just build more prisons. Should you have the time an interesting exercise would be to see how many of the congressmen and congresswomen we send to Washington send their children to the DC public schools. And let me make one thing perfectly clear... President and Mrs Obama would never send their children to those schools either. Click here to read what our President thinks about them for his daughters.

Senator Anthony Hardy Williams is to be commended. I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments; "I'm here to speak for a generation that has no one speaking for it. I'm compelled by my conscience and my compassion. I'm here because it's fair. Those who have can make choices. . . . Those who don't are obligated and relegated." Those who are relegated in life need someone, finally, to speak on their behalf.

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again... but expecting different results. I think our children deserve better.

Thomas F. Brzozowski

Jesuit Father John W. Swope, president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, who worked at M&T Bank on Friday, under the guidance of junior, Allan Johnson, Jr. said, “Allan and other Cristo Rey Jesuit students who work at M&T Bank take on real responsibilities for projects. In doing so, they learn critical skills for work, college and life.”

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