The Case for Choice in Education

by Veronique de Rugy

I just read two articles about the incredible failure of the public-school system. The first one, by Naomi Schaffer Riley and James Piereson, asks why the $100 million that Newark’s schools got from the head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, amounted to little to no improvement for the students in that city. The answer is and always has been that throwing money at the problem of failing schools, especially when the money will be spent on teachers’ salary and consultants, does nothing to address the structural problems and disincentives to perform that exist in these schools. They write:

The bulk of the funds supported consultants and the salaries and pensions of teachers and administrators, so the donation only reinforced the bureaucratic and political ills that have long plagued public education in the Garden State . . . The truth, as William Schambra of the Hudson Institute notes, is that $100 million is “a drop in the bucket” of most large public-school districts. When it is funneled into items like teacher salaries, as Mr. Zuckerberg’s money was, it will be meaningless.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first philanthropist to throw money at the problem of failing schools in vain:

In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg sought to improve education by awarding $500 million to America’s public schools. As an article on the Philanthropy Roundtable’s website notes, Annenberg assumed that the money “plus a bit of goodwill and social engineering could nudge American public schooling into new effectiveness.”

But the $1.1 billion in spending that resulted, thanks to matching grants, accomplished little. An assessment by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on the schools that received funds reached a dismal conclusion: “Findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that . . . there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect.” The report did not explain why the campaign failed, but the reason is fairly obvious: The funds wound up in the hands of the unions, administrators, and political figures who created the problems in the first place.

The mistakes continue. The new president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, announced earlier this year that the foundation would focus on fixing what he sees as broken political systems and on supporting public institutions, including schools. Philanthropists, who are not hemmed in by interest groups or institutional restraints, are tempted by the planning fallacy—the conviction that the government turns up bad results because there isn’t a plan. But vision is not the problem.

And that money, of course, is on top of the billions of dollars already spent by the government at the federal, states and local levels on a failing public-school system.

Sadly, the problem is much more tragic than rich people’s money being wasted. The lives of thousands of students are impacted by being stuck for years in failing public schools. That’s what the second article, written by Nicholas Simmons, talks about:

Over the past three school years, I unintentionally participated in a tragic educational case study on the west side of Harlem. I worked in the same building as the Wadleigh Secondary School, at which 0% of students in grades six through eight met state standards in math or English. That isn’t a typo: Not a single one of the 33 students passed either exam, though many of the questions are as straightforward as “What is 15% of 60?”

If you put the same types of kids in a different system, with different incentives for the teachers and the administrators, they thrive. Simmons continues:

Two floors above Wadleigh, I taught math at Success Academy Harlem West, a public charter school. The students there eat in the same cafeteria, exercise in the same gym and enjoy recess in the same courtyard. They also live on the same blocks and face many of the same challenges. The poverty rate at Wadleigh is 72%; at Harlem West, it is 60%. At both schools, more than 95% of students are black or Hispanic. About the only difference is that families at Harlem West won an admissions lottery.

Yet for our students, the academic year ended in triumph: 96% were proficient in math—compared with 35% citywide—and 80% scored at the advanced level. In reading and writing, 75% of our students were proficient, compared with 30% citywide.

This was not easy. My students do not have easy lives. Many are in households in which no English is spoken, or have moved in and out of homeless shelters. Others shoulder the primary responsibility of raising younger siblings. Yet we set high expectations. Our school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and teachers spend evenings and weekends speaking with families about their children’s progress. This blueprint works. Rigorous, well-designed and joyful schools can overcome the challenges of poverty.

Sadly, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to refuse to acknowledge the importance of charter schools. He has made it very clear that he is committed to serving the needs of teachers’ unions and other adults even if it’s at the expense of the needs of the children.

It is tragic but — as Riley and Piereson explain — the experience gives us a road map for donors to stop wasting their money. They write

In 1998, John Walton and Ted Forstmann each gave $50 million to fund scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. More than 140,000 students have attended schools with graduation and college matriculation rates that exceed 90% instead of going to the failing schools in their neighborhoods.

Earlier this summer, hedge-fund manager John Paulson pledged $8.5 million to the Success Academy charter-school network, where 93% of students are proficient in math, compared with 35% of their traditional public-school peers. His gift will allow more such schools to open. The financier Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, a former attorney, donated $40 million to help endow the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to needy children attending Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York.

In other words, there is hope for donors who want to make a difference in these kids’ lives. But it is a model that goes around the government, and circumvents the bureaucracies and special interests. As the article concludes, this model “has the potential to alter the lives not only of individual students, but entire communities.”

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