By David Hursh, Warner School Professor and William Cala, past interim Rochester City School District Superintendent
Dean Zupan, in his guest essay in the Democrat and Chronicle, compares the RCSD with a local parochial school, McQuaid, and the 22-school network of Cristo Rey Jesuit Schools, claiming that private schools are more successful and cost-effective in educating students. Further, he states that Cristo Rey schools do not “skim the cream” from the public schools, that is, only enroll the above average students from the city. Therefore, he concludes, city school students should be given “credits”— usually called vouchers— to enroll in private schools.
A full response would include providing evidence that such market models have not been successful in improving schools as a whole and that similar models, such as charter schools, have, on average, not performed better than public schools. However, I will focus on Dean Zupan’s claim that Cristo Rey schools enroll a student population comparable to the urban districts in which they are located. Common sense tells us this is unlikely to be the case.
First, private schools are not required to accept students with disabilities. In comparison, public schools must educate all students, regardless of ability. The RCSD, partly as a consequence of poverty, has an increasing number of students with disabilities, now near 20%. Placements within schools can cost well over $30,000. RCSD also has a large number of students in restrictive environments such as residential placements that can cost over $100,000 a year. Prior to the 1970s, public schools were not required to educate all students. However, with that requirement, which we should all favor, the per pupil cost has increased significantly. Such calculations seem not to be included in Dean Zupan’s analysis. It’s easy to reduce your per pupil cost if you do not enroll students who need more services!
Furthermore, Dean Zupan observes that the RCSD has one of the highest per pupil spending rates of US cities. He omits that Monroe County is highly segregated and unequal with the poor and people of color living in the city. Rochester has eleventh highest poverty rates in the US. One of the consequences of poverty is a high number of children with disabilities, and family and youth violence. Typically, 400 Rochester adolescents are either in detention centers or jail, all of whom, by law, must be provided with an education and services.
Moreover, the RCSD has a large number of English Language Learners who have either entered the United States as immigrants or, at about 2,000 families per year, arrive as refugees. This requires that the district hire additional educators who have expertise in working with beginning English learners.
Second, Christo Rey schools require that students work in job placements developed by the school and that the students’ earnings be given to the school to help pay for tuition. In Rochester, many urban students work so that they can contribute to their family income. Only more middle-class families are able to forego additional income.
Third, Christo Rey, like many private and charter schools, has a “no tolerance” policy. While “no tolerance” may sound good to the public, it means that the school can throw out any student who poses a problem. Private and charter schools can often boast of a high graduation rate for seniors because students who might not graduate have been expelled and returned to their urban districts.
Therefore, the likely consequence of Dean Zupan’s proposal is a widening gap between the private and the public, as private schools cream off the more advantaged urban students, and urban schools educate the rest. Ultimately, a market solution is no solution.