The new public school is striving to be born


AMERICA'S big-city school systems are getting new overseers.

In New Jersey it's the state. It took over the Jersey City, Newark and Paterson school districts in the face of chaos and mismanagement.

In Washington it's the congressionally created financial control board. It just threw out the superintendent and school board and put its own team in charge.

In Boston, New York, Denver, Chicago and probably Cleveland next year, the mayors are moving to reassert some if not all the power over schools that city halls relinquished early in this century.

Little of this would be occurring if the urban schools were educating kids well. Spasmodic reform efforts notwithstanding, overwhelming evidence says they're not. Even teachers in city schools seem to agree: In Baltimore, 43.6 percent of teachers' own children are enrolled in private schools. In New Orleans the number is 45.5 percent; in Detroit, 36.2 percent; in Cleveland, 52.8 percent.

Even so, public schools continue to eat up more public revenue than the rest of local government combined. Some schools perform superbly. But thousands turn out students so deficient in language, math and problem-solving skills that they're almost predestined to failure in today's economy.

That, in turn, darkens cities' own economic prospects. Small wonder the cries mount for change. But a first question needs to be asked: Why are urban (and increasingly inner-ring suburban) schools in such straits?

Some say it's the students -- that more and more are growing up in abject poverty or close to it, often from socially chaotic homes, sometimes raised by aunts or uncles or grandparents or in foster homes. Too many lack the social skills or intellectual tools to learn effectively.

Largely absent for today's youngsters are the strong churches, the boys' and girls' clubs, the extended families, the "eyes on the street" neighborhoods that acted as mediating and nurturing institutions in the cities of yesteryear.

Then there's the fact that 70 percent of mothers of America's school-age children are in the work force, with day care often beyond the reach of lower-wage earners. That makes one worry, notes Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership: "Just who is taking care of youngsters up to age 18 during the 91 percent of their time when they are not in school?"

Consolidated programs

A move to integrate schools with government and its agencies makes sense. How else are kids to get the mix of nutrition and medical programs, recreation outlets, family counseling and extended school-day care they need to be ready to learn?

A key component of Kentucky's widely heralded comprehensive reform initiative, notes Mr. Usdan, is its creation of family-resource centers for each school serving substantial numbers of poor children. Maybe urban school systems are doomed to failure until those kinds of community-based connections are made and increased.

But then one runs up against the next huge obstacle: the remarkably separate, unconnected culture of many teachers, school boards and school bureaucracies.

Most of the teachers are taught in separate schools of education, sealed off from the schools of social work, public health or criminology. School-board elections often are held at separate times from most elections, resulting in low turnouts and susceptibility to union or other special-group control. Surveys show that school-board members feel isolated from local government and its services.

It's a "culture of isolation and separatism," says Mr. Usdan, that will not make it easy to unite the schools with general-purpose government. And it creates a real dilemma for the future. For what comes after the wave of state takeovers, control boards and mayoral controls?

An outside authority is obviously positioned to reduce layers of bureaucracy, clean up pockets of corruption, start repairing dilapidated schools and building new ones. It can try to force schools to work more closely with parks and recreation and social services. It can even be tougher with unions than a regular school board. And it can insist on the stricter school discipline the public so clearly wants.

But there's no proof -- not yet, anyway -- that any state or mayoral takeover has resulted in substantially better student performance.

And once the special authority's time is up, or the mayor gets diverted by other priorities, will the lumbering school bureaucracies and isolated education worlds just revert to their normally mediocre performance?

If so, what happens to the students? And what happens to the social fabric, to all the future hopes of the cities?

This is why, in the swirl of debate about vouchers and school choice, charter and contracted schools, there's the germ of an idea, the makings of a new system, struggling to be born.

Normal politics says the entrenched forces of the education world and its bureaucracies will prevail. But the imperatives of cities' survival dictate we can't settle for that.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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