Dean Mark Zupan of the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business is rightly deeply concerned about the state of education in the Rochester City School District. (See guest essay by Zupan in Democrat and Chonicle, 11/24/2012.) However, I respectfully disagree with the proposal he makes: vouchers for students and families to use at any school that they choose, public or private.
As a researcher and teacher of education, I argue that there is much more to this story than costs or whether higher spending will lead to improvements. The high per-pupil-spending in the RCSD is easy to critique, especially in light of the long term outcomes we know about – educationally indefensible graduation rates, differential education provided to particular groups of students (i.e., students with disabilities, students of color), and general lack of preparation for college and work. However, if we put that spending in context, we see a more detailed picture. Rochester ranks in the top ten nationally in districts serving students living in poverty. Along with poverty come all the social, economic, environmental and educational problems we know about but have a hard time generating the political will to address. Couture (2007) writes, “The lack of one resource, in this case economic capital, can lead to deficiencies in other resources, specifically social and educational…poor and minority students who find themselves in many inner city public schools are often the recipients of inadequate education … This may be a matter of racism, but it also seems to be an issue of economics, which certainly play out in racist societies” (p. 3).1
Simply looking at per-pupil expenditures ignores the larger contexts. The New York Supreme Court recognized these facts in their 2005 decision in Coalition for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, holding that the State’s school funding system was unconstitutional, depriving NYC students of their constitutional right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. The City was awarded additional monies because of the economic disparities between their communities and those in other parts of the State. Similar disparities between RCSD schools and their suburban counterparts exist, with Rochester communities being blocked from access to resources and opportunities. These disparities pose large challenges to District schools and families. Professional, committed teachers and administrators struggle in this context that hobbles them with standardized curricula and testing while they work to be responsive to the students and families they serve in a system of schooling designed for the White middle class.
Kozol notes that, in many urban areas, “The city turns repeatedly to outside agencies – including religious charities, health organizations, medical schools and educational foundations – soliciting help in much the way that African and Latin American nations beg for grants from agencies like AID.”2 Cristo Rey, the network of Catholic schools that Zupan points to as a model for urban education, is an example of a religious organization seeking to improve education for “economically disadvantaged” students. The Jesuit Alumni Network subsidizes the schools. They serve only students who are economically disadvantaged. The curriculum (initially developed by the first group of teachers but modified as the student body changed) is a college preparatory one with high academic standards and extended days and school years. They have an impressive record – 90% of their graduates go to post-secondary schools (Cristo Rey website). However, there are four areas of concern that research studies have highlighted:
1) Paying for a Cristo Rey education: This is the most troubling and, to me, unethical aspect – Through contractual agreements with local businesses, students are required to participate in the Corporate Internship Program (CIP) one day each week. 74% of the cost of their tuition is paid through the CIP.3 They work in entry-level clerical jobs, with their pay going to the school. While work experiences certainly help students prepare for some aspects of life after high school (though they are limited to entry-level positions), requiring students to work at low wages to pay for their education is hugely problematic. As one student noted in an interview, “If this CIP is such a good thing, why isn’t it at [other schools]? We have to earn the right to be educated every day. Those students have the right to be there every day” (p. 13). Indeed, students are penalized for missing work, but not school. Teachers who questioned the program were fired. Thus, while teachers and students are distressed, the companies that hire student/workers are happy, and the CIP program is profitable.
2) Limited admissions: The admission requirements have been exclusionary from the beginning as non-readers, students with severe disabilities, and those involved in gangs were declined admission. As time has passed, teachers have grown increasingly concerned because the student body grows more and more elite, with higher motivation for school, higher test scores, and more operating at or above grade level. As a result, rather than educating all students with limited access to college preparatory curricula, a central goal for the Network according to their publications, Cristo Rey schools exclude students whom they assume will not succeed in their system.
3) Avoiding teachers unions: In a review of the 2008 book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism4, Louise Bol notes ~20 characteristics of schools, including Cristo Rey, that adopted what the book’s author calls paternalistic education. The list includes the elimination or decreased power of local teachers’ unions, along with using “unconventional channels to recruit committed teachers.” Like other such efforts, the protections and benefits unions offer teachers are sidestepped, giving increased control of hiring, evaluation, and firing to administration. While the role of teacher unions is a contentious one, the scope of which is beyond this essay, the relationship or lack of one between Cristo Rey schools and unions is troubling.
4) Assimilationist practices: Paternalistic education involves, among other things, rigorous curriculum, specific performance outcomes, creating college-going cultures; strict attendance rules, and teaching students how to walk, shake hands, speak ‘appropriately’ (as in white middle class style): “These paternalistic schools go beyond teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance.”5 We know from a well-established body of work that, when students’ cultural and social identities are denigrated or ignored, healthy physical, psychosocial, and academic development suffers. This seems like a very high cost to expect students to pay.
Overall, this model of schooling does what many educators and education researchers know and fear – it undercuts public schooling, limits access to education to those who are seen as potentially successful when given the financial help (or in this case, the ‘right’ to work as cheap labor), requires teachers to work longer hours for less pay with less job security, and narrows what counts as “appropriate” student behavior, thereby continuing the marginalization of students who are ‘different’ from an assumed norm. We know that this approach does not work, with substantial evidence from many parts of the country. I don’t in any way mean to make excuses for the state of education in the RCSD – again, it is educationally indefensible – but this model has known negative consequences. We can do much better, especially in working with families, communities, teachers, counselors and administrators as partners in improvement rather than problems to avoid.
1 Couture, B.A. (2007). A Freirean critique of the Cristo Rey Network’s transformation: Assimilation or liberation? Proquest Dissertations And Theses 2007. Section 0112, Part 0533 109 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation]. United States — Illinois: Loyola University Chicago; 2007. Publication Number: AAT 3295451.
2 Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in American schools. New York: Harper Perennial.
4 Bol, L. (2008). Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 22, 2008
5 Whitman, D. (2009). Appeal to authority: The new paternalism in urban schools. The Education Digest, 74(7), 55-61.