A challenge the schools didn't take

If you do not yet believe that school choice is escalating into a major issue, take a look at the odd debate in New York City about a challenge to the Catholic schools made five years ago by the national president of a teachers' union.

The challenge came from Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, after a speech he gave in Manhattan in 1991. During a question-and-answer period, Shanker said to Catherine Hickey, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York: I propose that you take on "the utterly failing, the toughest 5 percent" of our students and show us what you can do with them. Hickey said: "I accept your offer."

In the normal course of events, the public acceptance of a rather dramatic offer like this would lead to some attention and an actual plan of some sort.

But that is not what happened. Shanker dropped the subject, and it faded away. His challenge was remembered dimly (and incorrectly) as an out-of-the-blue offer from Cardinal John O'Connor. This month, reporters jumped on that version of the story after it showed up in a magazine article.

Long-forgotten comments can strike journalists like fresh thunderbolts for a lot of reasons, but the major one is a new climate. Part of the climate in New York was the sudden overcrowding of the schools. (Believe it or not, the New York system is currently 91,000 seats short.) But the picture had changed nationally as well. The state of Ohio is paying for inner-city Cleveland parents to send their children to private and parochial schools. Charter schools now operate in 25 states. Bob Dole's acceptance speech broadened the discussion of school choice and launched a national conversation about the teachers' unions as roadblocks to change.

Politics as usual. So "the cardinal's offer" became big news, praised by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, derided as an unworthy "bet" by schools chancellor Rudolph Crew.

Were the city and the teachers' union really willing to act on Shanker's public offer of a test to see whether the parochial schools could save some of the public system's worst students? Since the cardinal was willing to take 1,000 students, perhaps 2,000 at-risk public school children could be identified, then half of them randomly assigned by lottery to each system and tracked for their success or failure.

Well, no. Politicians, to no one's surprise, saw a grave threat to church-state separation. This was compounded by bureaucratic fearfulness and the traditional anti-Catholicism of the city's elite, so the plan collapsed. New York could have set up Shanker's plan along the lines of the Cleveland program. Maybe the program would wind up in court, but what did the city have to lose? The public schools are vastly overcrowded. Trapped in a decrepit system, the bottom 5 percent of their students are going nowhere. Why not see what the parochial schools can do?

Actually we know what Catholic schools can do, which may be the real reason so many people wanted to avoid a public-parochial comparison. Thirty years of research has consistently shown that they outperform public ones, usually at a fraction of the cost ($2,500 per student in New York City, compared with $7,500 in the public schools).

New York's parochial schools have the same proportion of disadvantaged and "at risk" youngsters as the public system has. Yet they have a much lower dropout rate, show higher test scores and send a much higher percentage of students to college. Charles Benenson, a wealthy non-Catholic benefactor who guided students as part of the "I Have a Dream" program offering college scholarships, said that only two of his 38 minority youngsters in public schools made it to college, compared with 20 out of 22 of his parochial school students. "They were the same kids from the same projects," Benenson said. "It's just that the Catholic schools worked and the others didn't."

Why? One reason is higher expectations and a communal culture. The attitude of the Catholic schools is we will work hard and we will not let you fail. Because the Catholic schools can't afford a lot of optional courses, all students do the same work. Discouraged minority youngsters can't slip away into easy, dead-end courses. Nationally, 43 percent of public school students are in vocational programs, triple the rate in Catholic schools.

Somehow the Catholic system is able to compensate for the stress of broken families and one-parent families. One sign: In the public system, the dropout rate among children from one-parent families is very high--double that of children from two-parent homes. In the Catholic system, there is no gap at all.

From a public policy point of view, it is important to look at what the public schools can learn here from the Catholic schools. Allowing the thousand New York public school students to attend parochial schools would have been a step in that direction. But the local establishment has closed its mind to any such experiment. The Al Shanker of 1991 was all for it, but now, through a spokesman, he says, "It's the wrong way to go." Demand for change and choice is rising, but the old order is determined not to move.