Friday, January 4, 2019

New York’s attack on private schools

My daughter attends public school, just as my son will in a few years. It works well for my family. We’re blessed to live in rural Niagara County within a relatively small school district where everyone knows one another and the very-caring academic and greater communities do well, working together, with preparing kids for the real world.

Public schools aren’t for everyone, though.

A lot of parents, mostly in larger urban and suburban districts, opt for private education, put off by their districts’ larger sizes, and the ills, real or perceived, that come from that: Minimization of the individual, lack of personal attention, and the disconnect from families. Sometimes, size is not the only reason to ditch public schools as many families prefer to have a classical education that has a connection to God.

For whatever their reasons may be, you can’t blame those moms and dads at all for choosing alternative schooling. They want the very best for their kids.

Those parents pay handsomely to do that. After having already paid property-based school taxes that are among the highest in the nation, those parents willingly fund tuitions that average just over $10,000 a year.

That sort of funding creates a free-market system in which the students can be winners. Because the private schools are competing for so few students they produce unique curricula, invest in resources, and develop college preparatory experiences that are in some cases better and in all cases significantly different from the public schools. If the private institutions failed in that regard, they wouldn’t be able to attract and retain so many families and win their dollars as active students and dedicated alumni. 

Despite that obvious attainment of excellence, the public school system, which, for most districts, is hardly driven by competitive forces – basically, if you live in a district, you get what you get -- has been empowered to make sure those high-powered schools are offering acceptable, even comparable, academic programming.

In November, New York State Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner MaryEllen Elia issued a directive to school districts saying the time had come for them to provide oversight of their neighboring private schools.

Elia claimed that the statutory precedent for that could be found within Section 3204 of New York State Educational Law, citing where the law says local school officials are required to ensure that all school-aged students residing within their districts are receiving an education. Using that as the reason for the oversight is somewhat of a stretch, but this is, after all, Governor Cuomo’s administration, well known for finding if not inventing ways to micromanage.

Commissioner Elia calls the goal of the campaign “substantial equivalence”. According to a NYSED training module, this means that a program is comparable in content and educational experience, but it may differ in method of delivery and format.

Under this program, public school superintendents – who are already working hard in their own schools and don’t have time to freelance, if you will, as consultants -- begin reviews in the 2018-2019 school year and continue them into the next. There are supposed to make sure curricula meet local, state, and national expectations.  

From there, their studies are given to their local school boards who make a recommendation to the Commissioner who then has the final power to determine if the private schools pass muster. This process will repeat itself every 5 years.

Let this sink in: A school district, which competes for students and families with a private school within its borders, is given the power to rate the effectiveness of their competitor. It would be no different than say the Department of Health leaning on chain restaurants to rate the health and practices of family-owned diners in their communities. Won’t the grading party always dismiss, for their own benefit, the excellence of their foe despite the fact that customers are voting with their feet and willingly paying more for what they see to be a superior product?  

It’s truly unfortunate that Elia and Cuomo find it necessary to lord over private schools and create a nasty private versus public battle of their own doing. Through our open door policy at the plant and in all my years as a volunteer I’ve met with thousands of youth educated in a variety of venues -- from public to private to charter to home schools – and each of those students has exhibited behaviors, understanding, and inquisitiveness unique to the individual, unique to their experience. I’ve also met many of their instructors, all of them pretty special with their own cares, ideas, and interests. It is clear to me that no mode of schooling is inherently better than the other, each one has its pros and cons.

We must remember that diversity of thought is how a nation succeeds -- and that can only come from a varied and vibrant education system. Let’s champion educational diversity, not stifle it.

Let’s hope Commissioner Elia learns that before it’s too late.  

From the 07 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News.

No comments: