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Topic: Failing schools? No, failing parents.
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Failing schools? No, failing parents.
Posted: Sep 4, 1999 11:21 AM
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From the Washington Post, Friday, September 3, 1999; Page A27 --[See ]

Failing Schools? No, Failing Parents

By William Raspberry

Florida has launched what has to be the most fascinating school voucher
experiment the nation has seen. It is elegant in its simplicity, it speaks
precisely to those parents who believe the public schools are failing their
children, and it leaves in the hands of the public school system the power
to put the program out of business.

The scheme (dubbed A+ Plan for Education by Gov. Jeb Bush) begins by
testing all fourth-graders in reading and math. If too many youngsters in a
particular school fail the test, the school itself is deemed a failure. If
the school fails two years out of four, its students become eligible for up
$4,000 in scholarships to attend private, parochial or other public schools
of their choice -- if the new schools accept them.

If there were no failing schools -- or if failing schools get their act
together quickly -- there would be no vouchers. Pro-voucher activist Clint
Bolick calls the plan "the first money-back guarantee in the history of
public education."

But for all the enthusiasm accompanying it, early implementation reveals
some troubling flaws. The first two schools to receive the "F" have a
combined enrollment of about 860 -- all of them eligible to apply for the
vouchers. Parents of 92 signed up. Does that mean the others are satisfied?
That they don't care? That they couldn't afford transportation or lunch? No
one knows.

Of the 92 who did sign up, only 58 actually won scholarships in the lottery
that is part of the plan.

Why? In Pensacola, where the failing schools are located, only four
Catholic schools and one private school agreed to participate in the plan,
which would require them to enroll lottery winners who apply. (The plan
also allows students of failing schools to transfer to other public
schools, with the school system providing transportation. Those who
transfer to private or parochial schools have to furnish their own
transportation and lunch.)

More ominous yet: While only a couple of schools have run afoul of the
two-Fs-in-four-years provision, 79 schools (26 of them in Miami) have their
first F -- not to mention a number of D grades that conceivably could slip.

Can the state afford the $4,000 scholarships for the scores of thousands of
students who could become eligible in the next few years? Would there be
other schools willing to take these students, even with their scholarship
money in hand?

It might also be argued that the parents most likely to take advantage of
the school-switching opportunity are those parents who have been most
involved in the failing schools -- doing what they can to help with
tutoring, fund raising and the other things all schools need. Take these
parents away and the schools become infinitely worse for those left behind.

True, but who could demand that these activist parents leave their own
children in a failing school when they have a chance to do better? I
couldn't. Whatever the flaws of the Florida plan, it does seem to offer an
escape hatch for these parents.

What it does not offer is a cure for the failing schools. Indeed, it seems
by my lights to misread the failure as almost willful. The assumption seems
to be that if a school is put on notice of its failure and then given a
little extra money, the staff can get itself in gear and turn the school

My guess is that the tests used to determine which schools are good and
which awful are in fact measures of the homes and neighborhoods the
children come from. I believe most of the failure -- and a good deal of the
success of the top-ranked schools -- happens before the children ever get
to school. Opening the hatches of the sinking boat may save the lives of
those children whose parents have given them water wings and swimming
lessons, but it does nothing for the others.

If Florida wants to stop the school failure that is driving Jeb Bush's
fascinating and innovative scheme, let it start with failing parents. Most
parents, even in the poorest neighborhoods, want their children to do well
in school. The problem is that they don't know how to help them do well.

So let's teach them. Let's have training programs to teach parents of
preschoolers how to get their children ready for school learning. In fact,
given the latest findings on brain development, I'd start years earlier
than preschool. I'd start by making parent training a mandatory part of the
high school curriculum, for boys and girls.

And for those who manage to escape that training, then courses in church
basements, recreation centers and public housing meeting rooms for
preschool and elementary-school parents. Voluntary, if that would work, but
mandatory if necessary.

Even with the cleverest of voucher schemes, schools can't do it all.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)

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