Courtesy Hartford Courant, Josiah H. Brown

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Wednesday, July 17, 2002










Josiah H. Brown

Josiah H. Brown grew up in Hampton and is currently associate director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.









The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Cleveland's public vouchers for religious schooling is misguided. I attended Windham County public schools for nine years, then an Episcopalian high school. I currently work with New Haven's public schools. These experiences offer powerful arguments against taxpayer subsidies for private education.

I have seen rural and urban public schools up close. My K-8 years were in rural District 11, whose scores on the 2001 Connecticut Mastery Test ranked 134th out of 163 districts in the state. There were (and are) some excellent students and teachers there, but the prevailing spirit and budget discouraged academic achievement. The student body was 98 percent white.

Subsequent years have highlighted urban schools' challenges. As a volunteer, researcher and employee of education organizations, I have worked with students of all ages and backgrounds in several cities. These roles have introduced me to parents, teachers, administrators and policy specialists. I have encountered superb educators and impressive city schools, along with woefully inadequate ones. It's been an education in education.

Vouchers are not the cure for low-achieving public schools. Greater public choice through magnet and charter schools does hold promise. But vouchers disproportionately reward families who already could have found their way to private schools, doing little for students left behind. There is no solid evidence that vouchers improve learning -- let alone that they use tax dollars wisely.

Consider District 11. Repeatedly, its families have left for towns with better schools or, occasionally, pursued private schooling far away. This ``competition'' has not had a positive effect on the district's local Parish Hill High. Its mediocre reputation fuels a cycle of weak public support.

It's this weak support for public schools -- not the lack of money for private schooling -- that's the problem. Meager tax bases and frustrated parents yield neglect. Few good independent schools exist in most cities or rural areas. Those that do are expensive and selective, closed to the students who might benefit most.

Private schools are an imperfect complement, not a solution, to public education. Through loans, summer job earnings and my parents' sacrifices, I had an opportunity to attend a boarding school. It was a mixed blessing, bringing small classes with committed teachers but also peers whose insularity and sense of entitlement was sometimes appalling.

I appreciate my years of public education and believe in Horace Mann's ideal of the ``common school.'' A strong public system should be every community's, and every state's, goal.

Education will never be a perfect ``market,'' magically reflecting supply and demand. Taxpayers demand accountability for their dollars. Public schools can, and should, be held accountable. Private schools cannot.

To send students to independent schools at taxpayer expense would be an insidious cop-out.

Beyond questions of church and state, a recent study revealed that parochial schools are typically even more racially segregated than public ones. The relatively cheap religious schools found in most cities keep costs low by paying teachers poorly and excluding difficult-to-teach students.

Follow the money. Public schools thrive in wealthy communities. Private schools in poor neighborhoods are usually undistinguished. To educate all low-income students independently would require vast subsidies, gutting public education while diluting accountability.

Responding to Sheff vs. O'Neill and similar lawsuits, states like Connecticut are right to invest in interdistrict initiatives and urban school construction. Property-tax reform also would help.

But even under existing revenue regimes, many states -- through enhanced cost-sharing and efficiencies -- have the resources to improve rural and urban public schools. Universal preschool and after-school are within reach. While implementing stiffer standards at the classroom and management levels, let's pay starting teachers what they deserve. Demand professionalism and compensate accordingly.

This requires leadership and political will. We also need a more regional approach to education as well as to issues such as housing and transportation.

One day, I expect my own children will attend public schools. Whether in the city or the country, those schools should be part of a strong system with high expectations for all.