Peter M. Flanigan
Founder and Director, Student Sponsor Partners
Private voucher programs now exist in virtually every city in the nation; they have served over 60,000 kids, and each program has a waiting list. Here in New York after 6,000 private vouchers to elementary schools were given out, the documented results showed that after only 3 years, half of the reading gap between white and African-American children was closed.
But private vouchers cannot satisfy the demand of all the parents who want to choose their children’s school. To satisfy that demand, states in the late 1980s began to experiment with public vouchers to attend private schools, including religious schools.
A legal theory had grown up that publicly funded vouchers redeemable at all types of schools violated the U.S. Constitution, but a year ago that theory was rejected by the Supreme Court, which held that public vouchers are constitutional.
The barriers to a poor parent’s right to choose are crumbling. This last great civil rights battle is being won in many states. A few weeks ago, Colorado joined the seven states that already provide this freedom of choice through vouchers or tax credits. Texas seems poised to do the same, and as you heard earlier today, in Washington, D.C., in a stunning about-face, the mayor and the Board of Education president came out for the voucher plan included in President Bush’s education bill.
So what have we learned in this past 20 years, other than that inner-city public schools are failing many of the children most in need? First, Harvard’s Caroline Minter Hoxby, a renowned economist, has studied the effects on a school district of entering into a union contract with teachers, and she found that virtually everywhere the results were smaller class sizes, higher expenditures, and no educational improvement.
Second, parents do desire to choose their children’s schools, as we saw when the Children’s Scholarship Fund offered 40,000 private vouchers and over a million-and-a-quarter parents responded. Contrary to predictions, these parents wanted a choice and knew very well how to choose schools for their children.
Third, according to a number of studies of voucher programs in a variety of cities, parental satisfaction and student performance have increased substantially.
Fourth, where the voucher amount was sufficient and the program long term, as in Milwaukee and Edgewater, Texas, new schools and classrooms have been built to meet the new demand for them. That shouldn’t surprise us, even though some people still claim the supply of classrooms won’t increase to meet a new demand.
Finally and most importantly, where the voucher recipients represented a substantial proportion of the total school population, as in the case of Milwaukee, the public schools responded positively. Caroline Hoxby found a real correlation between increased school competition-public and private-and improvement in the public schools. As Secretary of Education Paige said earlier today, the object of competition is to improve all the schools, particularly the public schools.
What can New York City learn from the success of Catholic and charter schools, and how can donors support them? Though charter schools are mostly publicly financed and Catholic schools are mostly privately financed, they do have several elements in common. First, the schools are usually small enough that they’re a real community. Second, they are schools of choice. Each parent has exercised his or her free choice in picking the school for his or her child. If enough parents don’t select the school, the school closes. That has happened with charter schools and with Catholic schools, but it never happens with public schools. And third, charter and Catholic schools are largely free of the suffocating limitations of teachers’ unions contracts. In charter and parochial schools, principals and teachers are chosen on merit, not seniority.
To dramatically improve education in New York City, first give parents the freedom to choose the school they think best for their children. Faced with the threat of losing students, most public schools could and would improve, as they have in Milwaukee and elsewhere. Those schools that do not improve should be closed. Second, take the rigidity of the work rules out of the union contract. Negotiate pay levels, but provide for merit pay and merit promotion. And of course, keep the school small.
Charter schools need two areas of support. One is to urge the governor and the state legislature to increase the number of authorized charter schools. That number is currently capped at 100 for the whole state. With only 20 in New York City, we’re a long way from what we need to influence our conventional public schools. Charter schools also need help in defending their freedom from operating regulations.
In addition, charter schools need funds to pay for capital expenditures. Current legislation just provides operating funds, but nothing for bricks and mortar. Private donations are critical if we’re going to have new charter schools. Donors are also essential if we’re to keep alive inner-city private schools. In this city alone the Catholic system has 165,000 students-Catholic and non-Catholic, and almost all minorities-in several hundred schools.
Today we’ve talked a great deal, and rightly, about charter schools, but there are only 20 here. Think of the competition being provided by the several hundred Catholic schools that teach 165,000 kids. Tuition at these schools, K through 8, averages $2,100 a year; at high schools, $4,000 a year. Per-pupil expenditures are about $500 a year above the tuition level. How happy those schools would be to get half the per-pupil money the charter schools get-which is much less than half what the city spends on each student in a conventional public school.
These Catholic schools are operating on a knife edge. Private donors are already providing substantial support through the Student Sponsor Partners, Be a Student’s Friend, the Patrons Program, and the Inner-city Scholarship Fund, and I want to thank every one of you who has supported those schools and their kids. But until we have voucher legislation-which will be a long time coming in New York-these schools will need a great deal more help to keep them viable and vibrant so that they can provide beneficial competition to the public school system. I hope all of you will support competition through charter schools and our private and Catholic schools.
Tom Vander Ark
Executive Director for Education, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
What would dramatic improvement in K-12 schools look like? That’s easy: an 80 percent college-ready graduation rate from high school, or as Dan Katzir of the Broad Foundation said, “kids leaving ready for college, for work, and for citizenship.” Today about 50 percent of students in New York City public schools graduate, and I would guess less than a sixth of them graduate college-ready. I’d set 80 percent as a 10-year goal for dramatic improvement. That’s the goal in all of the communities the Gates Foundation works in.
Regarding Mr. Flanigan’s comments, I suspect we at the Gates Foundation are the largest charter school funder in the country, and close to that in funding private schools. We have a track record of supporting both public charter and private school investments. But the real issue is the supply problem. There just aren’t enough good schools of any sort for poor kids in this country. If you live in the Bronx or Brooklyn today and you’re in a bad high school, you don’t have many high quality-options. We’re working to address the supply problem, trying to create great public schools, great charter schools, and great private schools, so that every family, regardless of their income or zip code or race, has access to a variety of high-quality options.
One Catholic school of particular note is a model called Cristo Rey. Kids go to school four days a week, with long days and a long school year, and they job-share one day a week. Four or five students share a white-collar job, and the company, in lieu of salaries, pays a sponsorship to the school. This funding offsets about 70 percent of the tuition, making Cristo Rey a financially sustainable model for urban faith-based education, which I think is terribly important. In my home town of Denver there were three great Catholic high schools when I was young. Today there are zero. We have to find ways to create sustainable faith-based models. We’ve also funded the National Association of Street Schools, which are church-based alternative schools. I’d encourage you to look at both of those models.
As for public schools, Dan Katzir said Houston may be one of the best public districts in the country, yet I’d add that about 50 percent of the kids don’t graduate from high school. So while it’s the best of a bad lot, we have a long way to go.
I want to remind you, and myself, that standards remain a radical proposition. Fifty years from now, historians will look back at the remarkable public policy shift that happened from 1993 to 1997: 49 states adopted standards assessment and accountability on the premise that all kids can and should learn at a high level. Here’s the catch: We don’t know how to do it. No one has ever designed a system at scale that helped all kids leave ready for college, for work, and for citizenship. We still have to figure out how to create success at scale, which is why many of us are interested in charter management organizations.
On the question of what New York donors can do to create dramatic improvement, I asked a colleague what I should say, and he answered, “Tell them you should start over, because that’s what we have to do.” We do not have schools or systems designed to do what we’re asking them to do. That’s why we’re so excited about what’s happening in New York because it is as close as you can come to starting over, at both the governance and the school level.
New York’s notion of not trying to fix but to replace 30 or 40 failing high schools is a remarkable strategy. No one else has ever tried this. In the last decade we learned a lot about fixing elementary schools. We know roughly how to do that. But we still don’t know how to fix Columbus High School in the Bronx. What we do know how to do, what New York knows how to do better than any city in the country, is to start great new schools.
And so the idea is to create 200 new secondary schools here, not as a fringe activity, but as the reform strategy for secondary schools. It’s a remarkably brave but sound approach, and I think it’s one you should spend money on, because it’s something we’re spending money on. There’s a 90 percent probability the new schools will be a better option for families than anything that exists in their neighborhood. Tell me anything else that you fund that has that good a probability.
Regardless of your foundation’s focus, there are lots of ways for you to be involved. You can sponsor leadership programs. You can sponsor professional development in these new schools. You can target a particular neighborhood or region. You can target a particular theme-environmental schools or leadership schools, art schools or technology schools.
All our work involves funding alliances, and so we’d love to work with people in this room to fund the creation of new public schools, new charter schools, new Catholic schools. There are so many ways to be involved, and we’d love to talk more with you if you’re interested.
There one more way to be involved: It’s important to help parents in historically underserved neighborhoods understand that they ought to have access to great schools. Some of them have just given up hope and need to be taken to some of the great schools that exist here. Once when I was in Chicago visiting schools, I ran into 35 parents from Oakland also visiting schools. I asked, “What are you doing?” They said, “We’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take it any more, and we want to know what good schools look like.” And so a community organization had flown 35 parents to Chicago to visit good new schools. They went back ticked off they didn’t have good schools like those for their kids.
Today there is such strong momentum in Oakland because the parents are demanding new options for their kids. We need to do a better job of engaging communities and helping them, as Peter Flanigan said, build the demand for high-quality options for their kids.