The Bronx Blogger

Monday, September 05, 2005

Public Schools Teachers Union Urges Boycott Due to Fear of Private School Competition

I'm still working on my next Steven Vincent post. In the meantime, I'm posting a link to this story about kids who got scholarships to attend private elementary schools:

"Private schools do more for variety of kids"

I was directed to this story by the following item on the Powerline blog: "The power of moral vision".

Public school unions sometimes like to conflate the idea of promoting healthy competition to public schools with the idea of attacking public schools. While it is true that competition attacks the public school monopoly, it is a fatal attack on public schools themselves only if the public schools cannot adapt to the competition.

And since public schools have proven capable of adapting, competition isn't even an attack in such cases, but a prod to improvement. Public schools shouldn't be shielded from the accountability that many of them so desperately need.

UPDATE The above link to the Minneapolis Star Tribune article has gone from free, unrestricted access to free, registration-required access. So here is the text of the article that I linked to:

Private schools do more for variety of kids
by Katherine Kersten, September 5, 2005

The education establishment tends to see red at the words "school choice." It claims that public schools suffer when kids -- even poor kids in marginal schools -- leave the system to attend private schools.

What about reports that low-income kids often do better there? Private schools "cream" students, we're told -- skim off the best -- while public schools have to take all comers.

Recently, the National Education Association -- the nation's largest teachers union -- called on parents to boycott Wal-Mart, in part to protest the "anti-public education activities" of founder Sam Walton's son, John Walton.

Walton's "anti-public education" sin? He co-founded the Children's Scholarship Fund, which gives tuition dollars to low-income children whose parents believe they would do better in private schools.

The Children's Scholarship Fund has a presence in the Twin Cities. Each year since 1999, it has partnered with Kids First, a local nonprofit, to help 600 to 1,000 children attend the school of their choice ( The mission, says Kids First director Margie Lauer, is to provide "a choice for parents, a chance for children."

Last week, I decided to test the conventional wisdom and visit Kids First families who clearly don't qualify as educational "cream." How are they faring outside government schools?

I stopped first at Mary Collins' home on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. Collins' sons, Lamar, 11, and Donte, 9, attend St. Peter Claver School in St. Paul on Kids First scholarships.

Seeing Lamar and Donte, bright-eyed and beaming, you'd never guess that they -- like Collins' seven other adopted children -- were born with drugs in their systems. They were crack babies, found cowering under a bed after a crack house raid eight years ago.

"All my children came to me with severe medical problems," says Collins, who subsists on government adoption subsidies. Some of the older children attended St. Paul public schools. "But they seemed lost there," she says. "Classes weren't structured enough."

The younger boys found exactly what they need at St. Peter Claver. "The academics are rigorous, the classroom environment is disciplined and harmonious, and teachers tell me just what to do about my boys' special learning needs," Collins says.

How could this be? St. Peter Claver, whose students are nearly 100 percent minority and low-income, has far fewer resources than St. Paul public schools. It spends about $5,000 annually per pupil, while St. Paul schools with similar demographics generally spend around $11,000. And the Collins boys are precisely the kind of "special needs" kids who are supposed to soak up resources.

Moral vision

The answer, I suspect, is this: St. Peter Claver, whose principal is Teresa Mardenborough, is rich in one essential "resource," which the public schools tend to steer clear of. It has a clear, confident moral vision, and teaches it with no apologies.

Collins says she saw immediately that the school's focus on moral character made all the difference for her boys. St. Peter Claver guides them to think seriously about their purpose on Earth -- their vocation, she calls it. "The public schools have signs on the walls -- 'Respect others,' 'Be nice,' " she explains. "But they can't tell the students why they should do these things, which can be difficult. It's a moral issue for public schools. They think it crosses the church-state line."

St. Peter Claver, she says, is trying to bring back the faith-based vision of the good life that she learned as a girl.

Lamar and Donte tick off the virtues they're learning: honesty, responsibility, respect, generosity. They both like school uniforms. "If you wear jeans and an armless shirt, then it's like you don't want to learn," Donte explains. St. Peter Claver, adds their mother, expects students to "dress for success."

"Our principal tells us that black students should be leaders, not followers," says Lamar.

Lamar and Donte sympathize with a 7-year-old neighbor who sometimes cries before taking the bus to his public school. "In public schools, there are fights for no reason," says Lamar. "I said, 'You should go to our school because you're talking about fighting and stuff. Our school isn't like that.' "

Change in conduct

In Minneapolis I met another Kids First family: Chalnicea Smith and her 12-year-old daughter, Musulyn Myers. Smith, a single mother, recently lost her job as a home health aide. Musulyn is in seventh grade at Ascension School in north Minneapolis.

Musulyn was out of control in her public school kindergarten, says Smith. "She was suspended -- in kindergarten! I was being called to school all the time. At the end of the year, I vowed, 'She's not going back.' "

Musulyn's conduct improved dramatically when she switched to Ascension, whose students are 95 percent minority and nearly 60 percent low-income. Again, the school's moral vision was key.

"Ascension teaches the kids a clear sense of right and wrong," says Smith. "Every day, they learn self-discipline, trustworthiness, kindness and gratitude." The school uniform, she adds, is a constant symbol of this moral code. "It shows that school is about what you learn, not how you look."

Dorwatha Woods, Ascension's imposing principal, sets the tone as mentor, disciplinarian and master teacher. "After school," says Smith, "Musulyn sits in Ms. Woods' office, and she makes sure Musulyn does all her homework. She tells her to be grateful: 'Your mother's making sacrifices every day to send you here.' "

During the next legislative session, we're likely to hear "sky-is-falling" rhetoric about how public schools lack the resources they need to deal with "the hardest cases." But schools like St. Peter Claver and Ascension take "the hardest cases" on a shoestring budget.

They are confident in the power of their moral vision.

Katherine Kersten is at