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March 24, 2001

Do Privately Managed Public Schools Make the Grade?
Experiments in Education Reform Move Ahead

NEW YORK (Zenit.org) - Reforming the education system in the United States is one of the new Bush administration's key goals, but there is widespread debate over the best way to achieve this.

One possibility is to entrust more public schools to private enterprise. Voting is now under way in New York City over whether a private company, Edison Schools, should be allowed to take over the management of five problem schools, the New York Times reported March 22. About 5,000 parents are voting, while the proponents and opponents of the Edison plan are going door to door, looking for support.

Attention is focused on New York because the school system is the country's largest, with 1.1 million students and 78,000 teachers and administrators. The move to entrust the schools to Edison is a victory for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, according to a Times article Dec. 22. Giuliani has pushed for privatization and has set aside $60 million of the Board of Education's $11 billion budget for a private-management program.

The five schools in the program are three middle schools in Brooklyn, one elementary school in Manhattan and one school in the Bronx that has kindergartners through eighth-graders.

Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former president of Yale University who is now chairman of Edison, said Edison had invested roughly $1.5 million in each of the 113 schools it manages around the country. Much of that spending is on technology, including home computers for each student beginning in the third grade. Those computers are typically distributed in the second year of Edison's management of a school.

Edison has done a good job in reforming the San Francisco schools under its control, according to U.S. News and World Report magazine in its March 26 edition. For example, at one elementary school, taken over in mid-1998, "test scores have risen, and a sense of order and purpose marks the once chaotic hallways and classrooms of the Edison Charter Academy."

The school board at this academy, however, now wants to revoke Edison's charter. The issue does not seem related to academic issues, according to U.S. News and World Report. Jill Wynns, the school board president, says the problem is more fundamental, that of running a public school for profit. "I don't believe it's appropriate for people who make educational decisions to have a personal financial interest in them," Wynns says.

Edison has grown rapidly since its founding by Chris Whittle in 1992. It opened its first four schools in 1995 and now contracts with school districts or chartering authorities to manage 113 schools with 57,000 students -- mostly black and Hispanic children from low-income families -- in 45 cities. Just a few days ago, in Nevada, a Las Vegas-area school board voted to turn over seven schools to the firm.

Opinion is divided over the academic results at schools run by Edison. Opponents point to a recent Western Michigan University study -- commissioned by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union -- that found gains in the first 10 Edison schools were comparable to those made in regular public schools in the same districts. But Jane Hannaway, director of education policy at the Urban Institute, is impressed by how well managed Edison schools are. She said Edison's profit motive doesn't bother her. "I'm a pragmatist," she says. "Anything that helps poor kids do better, I'm for."

Catholic schools more successful

In the debate over how to improve schools, reformers could well benefit by studying the Catholic example. A study comparing Catholic and public schools in New York City found that students achieve comparable results in lower grades, but by eighth grade the public school students lag behind considerably on state tests.

According to the New York Times, March 22, the study, released a day earlier, was sponsored by New York University and was conducted by a public school advocate teamed with a proponent of taxpayer support for private and Catholic schools in the form of vouchers. It found that in the eighth grade, half of all Catholic school students passed the state reading test, and 35% passed the math test. Among public school students, 42% passed the reading test and 23% passed the math test.

The report also found that Catholic schools were able to educate students with fewer resources. There is one teacher for every 21 students in the Catholic schools, compared with one teacher for every 16 students in the public system.

Catholic schools continue to expand, spurred by ever-increasing demand. The Washington Post reported March 20 on the situation in northern Virginia, where the demand for spots in Catholic schools far exceeds the supply.

Since 1990 the number of Catholics living in the Arlington Diocese, which covers northern Virginia, has grown 42%. During the same period, Catholic school enrollment in the area increased 49%. In the neighboring Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Catholics grew by 16% in the 1990s, while the school population increased by a greater amount, 18%.

The debate over vouchers

Since the defeat of voucher proposals in state ballots last November in California and Michigan, proponents of vouchers have faced an uphill battle. The situation worsened in December when a federal appeals court ruled that a Cleveland, Ohio, voucher program was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment's provision against the government's establishment of religion.

At the time, Richard W. Garnett, assistant professor at the Notre Dame Law School, commented in the Dec. 14 edition of the Washington Times that the "decision is certainly misguided, and will almost as certainly be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court." Garnett noted that the appeals court's ruling was at variance with the trend in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. He also affirmed that providing school choice by means of vouchers "is not about funding religious schools, or promoting religious 'indoctrination.' It is about equality, freedom and simple justice."

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the city of Milwaukee is proceeding with a voucher program, whereby low income parents can use public funds to send their children to 103 private schools that would otherwise be out of their financial reach, the Washington Post reported March 20.

The Post cast doubts on the academic benefits of the program, observing that voucher students are not required to take standardized tests and cannot be compared to their public school counterparts. The Post was also not happy that the schools are subject to minimal regulations, following the "sometimes flawed theory that parents are the best arbiters of education quality."

In reply, the National Review Online on March 21 published an article critical of the Post's attitude, noting that many parents "will be surprised to learn that they are 'flawed' in believing that they are the best arbiters of the quality of their children's education."

The National Review also pointed out that voucher proponents don't maintain that all private schools are necessarily of the same quality, but that they "simply want parents to have greater flexibility and choice in where they can send their kids to school -- public or private." That's an argument many parents may find appealing.


Why South Asia Is Missing 79 Million Women
Human Rights Abuses Abound for Sake of Family Planning

GENEVA (Zenit.org) - This week the U.N. Human Rights Commission opened its annual session in Geneva. One theme unlikely to be treated is the lack of respect for human rights in family planning programs.

The recent decision by American President George W. Bush to deny U.S. funding to organizations involved in abortions drew attention once more to the behavior of the Western-based and -financed groups. Abortion, however, is only one of the problems in the population control efforts promoted by rich countries and the United Nations.

China: torture used to enforce limits

Some reports in recent months have alleged that Chinese authorities are relaxing the one-child limit on families. But the situation is far from clear. Other reports indicate that China continues to abuse individual liberties in enforcing family planning.

Last month Amnesty International published a study on the use of torture by Chinese authorities, and a part of this document examined the birth control policy. Amnesty affirms, "Numerous public reports from China indicate that local annual birth quotas still play a prominent part in the policy, upheld by stiff penalties as a well as rewards."

While some exceptions have been made in recent times, the report noted that if women become pregnant without official permission, they could still be punished by heavy fines and dismissal. As well, local officials could be demoted, fired or fined for failing to uphold the plan and quotas.

To enforce the birth control limits, Amnesty said, "officials continue to resort to violence, torture and ill-treatment including physically coerced abortions and sterilizations." Amnesty went on to detail one such case, in Nanhai County, Guangdong province. There, birth control officials last summer were operating illegal detention facilities for pregnant women and relatives of those who did not pay fines. The officials, who acted with impunity, held the detainees for long periods in poor conditions.

A related problem in China is the trafficking of women. Due to the push for smaller families, and the traditional preference for male offspring in many areas, brides are now in short supply. This has led to the kidnapping and sale of women, the Los Angeles Times reported Feb. 14.

The Times said a 1995 study showed that never-married men 20 to 44 years old outnumbered their female counterparts by nearly 2 to 1. Between the ages of 25 and 39, the ratio was 4 to 1. In hard numbers, that is equivalent to a surplus of 26 million single men age 20 to 44 in China.

Because of the steep drop in the proportion of daughters after China's one-child policy took effect in 1979 -- due to selective abortion, fatal neglect or outright killing of baby girls -- the situation is expected to worsen in coming years.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in 1999, according to government statistics, 6,800 women were reported abducted or missing and not recovered, a figure experts say is almost certainly too low. An additional 7,660 women were rescued.

Selective abortions

The practice of selectively aborting unborn girls is also present in other Asian countries. Reuters reported Dec. 16 on a study compiled by the Mahbub Ul Haq Human Development Center in Pakistan. According to the study, the growing use of ultrasound and amniocentesis to screen babies' health, which enables parents to learn their offspring's sex early in pregnancy, have facilitated abortions and skewed South Asia's population toward males.

The survey of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives said 79 million women were "missing in South Asia" due to discrimination against females, both before and after birth. The report based its findings of "missing women" on figures that show there are only 94 women for every 100 men in South Asia while the ratio worldwide is 106 women for every 100 men.

Female sterilization is another way in which women's human rights are being violated by family planning. The Washington Post reported Dec. 23 that many Brazilian women now want to reverse their sterilization, but the procedure is costly.

By the early 1980s, sterilization was by far Brazil's No. 1 form of birth control, and played an important part in lowering the country's fertility rate to 2.1 children per woman by the early 1990s.

The Post reported that Brazilian officials acknowledge that the widespread use of sterilization is largely responsible for the country's alarmingly high use of Caesarean sections, because sterilizations are often performed after a Caesarean. By 1986, 44% of Brazilian births were performed by Caesarean.

As the number of Caesareans increased, so did the rate of birth-related deaths among mothers. Brazil's maternal mortality rate peaked at 220 per 100,000 births during the early 1990s, with some cities reporting rates as high as 350 per 100,000 births.

Feminist ideology

In the enthusiasm for limiting population growth, basic human rights are being trampled. In an article in The World and I magazine last December, Boston College philosophy professor Laura L. Garcia argued that family planning efforts have been reinforced in many cases by a feminist ideology that considers women's fertility a threat to themselves and to their self-realization.

This radical ideology has come to dominate the academy and the media in most Western nations, producing a powerful coalition of well-intentioned but extremely determined social engineers, noted Garcia.

The article observes that the drive to make contraceptives and abortion accessible to every woman is often portrayed as a way of helping women and the human race generally into a more enlightened future. However, continued Garcia, "questions linger over whether this agenda is truly in the interests of women, especially women in cultures less fragmented than in the West."

The emphasis on birth control has also led to neglect of basic health needs in Third World nations. Garcia quoted Leanardo Casco of Honduras, who complains that "in our hospitals and in our health-care system, we have a lot of problems getting basic medicines -- things like penicillin and antibiotics. There is a terrible shortage of basic medicines, but you can find the cabinets full of condoms, pills and IUDs." In fact, since 1969, the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent more money on population control programs than on other health programs. In some years, it spent three times more on contraceptive "re-education" than on health care, Garcia commented.

Prior to the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development Pope John Paul II, in his address to the then head of the U.N. Population Fund, Nafis Sadik, explained that in relation to family planning, "no goal or policy will bring positive results for people if it does not respect the unique dignity and objective needs of those same people." If only these words were heeded there would be greater respect for human rights.


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