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Jewish World Review August 20, 2002 / 12 Elul, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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The children left behind | A recent national poll by the Public Education Network and the newspaper Education Week revealed that, next to jobs and the economy, education is the most pressing priority for Americans. And, indeed, there is a profusion of books and articles on the need for educational reforms.

But how many Americans know -- or care -- that, as Michael Rebell pointed out in Education Week (April 24), "Over 70 percent of African-American and Latino public school students in the United States currently attend predominantly minority schools." So much for the glowing promise of the Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregated public schools inherently unconstitutional. Rebell focused on the crucial reason so many children are left behind: "The inner-city schools attended by most of these minority students receive substantially less funding and have fewer qualified teachers, larger classes, and vastly inferior facilities than schools attended by more affluent white students in the surrounding suburbs."

Often overlooked by school "reformers" is that fact that there are many poor white and American Indian children in this nation who are subject to the same bleak futures as black and Hispanic youngsters in inferior schools.

In the 19th century, Horace Mann was the champion of the common school -- publicly supported, nonsectarian and committed to teaching youngsters how to become active citizens in a democracy. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1900, he achieved a great deal in Massachusetts and in the rest of the country.

But that dream has faded. The poll by the Public Education Network and Education Week shows that many Americans recognize that crucially unequal financing of public education is at the core of the need for reform. A majority of those surveyed -- 53 percent -- want elected officials to protect schools from budget cuts.

As Education Week notes, this strong concern is manifested "at a time when most states are reducing spending because of declining revenues." Nonetheless, the majority of those polled wants "early-childhood education, class-size reduction programs, teacher training and teachers' salaries to be shielded from cuts."

In my view, one way to persuade more taxpayers to protect and increase school budgets is to institute a clear, enforceable system of accountability for teachers and principals. And that means, despite teachers' union opposition, pay based on the actual achievement of students.

As Rebell emphasized, a number of state supreme courts are also recognizing that equal-education opportunity requires equitable financing of public schools, "particularly in those cities and rural areas where generations of children are being left behind."

Sounding like Mann, in Rose v. Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court has reminded that state's taxpayers that the delegation to the 1891 state constitutional convention intended to ensure that "the boys of the humble mountain home stand equally high with those from the mansions of the city. There are no distinctions in the common schools, but all stand upon one level."

But in this century, they still do not stand on one level -- girls, as well as boys. And that's why, in Claremont School District v. State of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Supreme Court declared: "Given the complexities of our society today, the state's constitutional duty extends beyond mere reading, writing and arithmetic. It also includes broad educational opportunities needed in today's society to prepare citizens for their roles as participants and potential competitors in today's marketplace of ideas."

Nonetheless, on June 26 of this year, a panel of the Appellate Division of New York State's Supreme Court ruled -- as The New York Times reported -- that in terms of spending on public schools, the state "is obliged to provide no more than a middle-school level education, and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs." New York City Schools Chancellor Howard Levy said, "The constitutional standard cannot be that children are entitled to be menial laborers."

Or as Oliver Twist said, "Please sir, may I have some more?"

In every state, the common school cannot offer the opportunity for a meaningful future if every child does not have a chance to "stand equally high with those from the mansions of the city."

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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