Sol Stern, contributing editor to City Journal and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, writes frequently on education, especially in New York City. He is the author of a new book, Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice. As schoolchildren settle back into the post-summer school routine, Stern recently talked with NRO about his book and the state of schools, school choice, among other things. Stern, by the way, is a New York City native.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How many years have you been writing about education?
Sol Stern: I started writing about education in 1994 when my kids were in the New York City public schools and I realized that the teachers’ union contract was a big impediment to school improvement.
Lopez: When you talk about “breaking free,” are vouchers the best way? Does it vary from region to region?
Stern: In my book, the term “breaking free” has two meanings. First, I propose that poor kids be given the means to “break free” from failing public schools and find private or parochial schools that are more likely to work for them. I see this as a moral imperative and the last remaining civil-rights battle in America. Second, I also want the public schools themselves to “break free” of the stifling bureaucratic regulations and union work rules that are partly responsible for the existence of so many failed schools in the first place.
Lopez: For vouchers, how important was the Supreme Court’s Zelman decision?
Stern: The Zelman decision was an enormous milestone in the struggle for school choice. Before Zelman, opponents of voucher programs could say that no matter how much vouchers might benefit poor children it was forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. Now these people at least have to make a case that vouchers are bad public policy. They can’t just say “the Constitution” made me do it.
Lopez: President Bush stole a page from the Children’s Defense Fund playbook and promised to “Leave no child behind” — and yet we do, in the W.-era legislation! What’s the solution to TED KENNEDY (who, in your book, you cite a Bushie blaming) — is it his fault?
Stern: For Ted Kennedy it’s pure political calculation. He represents the interests of the public-school industry and its employees. While it’s not entirely his fault that the No Child Left Behind legislation is not all that it could be, he certainly played a major role in making sure that the legislation’s choice provisions became almost meaningless. The solution, though, is not for us to blame Senator Kennedy. The solution is for the black and Hispanic families victimized by poor inner-city schools to let Kennedy and other leaders of the Democratic party know they are betraying the interests of their children in favor of the interests of the employee unions. That seems to be happening now in the battle for vouchers in Washington D.C.
Lopez: Knowing what you know now, would you have sent your kids to New York City public schools?
Stern: Since I can’t afford New York’s pricey private schools and wouldn’t dream of moving to the suburbs, I would still have no choice but to send my kids to the public schools. This actually was a great learning experience. There is something to be said for figuring out how to cope with bad teachers and a dysfunctional system and still somehow get your kids educated.
Lopez: Writing about education, seeing all you’ve seen, do you still get shocked? If so, what was your most recent shocking moment?
Stern: I hope I haven’t become so cynical that I am no longer capable of being shocked by how stupid and dysfunctional this system can be. We need to keep expressing our outrage that in the 21st century this otherwise creative and entrepreneurial society cannot manage to provide minimally decent schooling for all its children.
Lopez: What’s so special about Catholic schools — even for non-Catholic, maybe non-Christian, maybe nonreligious families?
Stern: Catholic schools are not perfect, far from it. But in most Catholic schools I have visited I had the sense that the kids’ interests come first. In my experience in the public schools it was almost always employee interests first, kids second.
Lopez: How corrupting are unions?
Stern: It’s not that teachers’ unions per se are “corrupting.” Rather it’s that politically powerful unions operating within a monopoly system tend to steamroll all other interests. If the public-education monopoly had to compete for its customers like every other enterprise the teachers’ unions would lose much of their destructive power.
Lopez: What’s the most important lesson from Milwaukee?
Stern: The most important lesson from Milwaukee is that competition brings new opportunities for academic improvement for everyone. Vouchers allowed non-traditional educators like Brother Bob Smith and Walter Sava to make a great contribution to the city by creating inspiring schools for thousands of disadvantaged children. And then the competition from these voucher schools forced the public-school system to improve. You can read all about it in my book.
Lopez: Recently, Dianne Feinstein came out in favor of choice in D.C. Is that an exception to a liberal Dem rule, or is being for school choice becoming more and more acceptable?
Stern: I think the dominoes are beginning to fall for the Democratic party’s attachment to the status quo in public education. The existing school system in a place like Washington, D.C. has become just too rotten for the so-called party of the people to defend with a straight face. Since not one Democratic politician is willing to send his own kids to the D.C. public schools, the party’s position becomes ever more embarrassing and untenable.
Lopez: What’s the best thing public schools in New York City have going for them?
Stern: The best thing that the NYC public schools have going for them is the same thing that New York in general has — a lot of creative, talented people. Here and there exceptional teachers and principals overcome the bureaucracy and the stifling work rules and carve out a piece of liberated territory where learning does go on. If you want some advice on where those schools might be found you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lopez: Is choice coming to NYC?
Stern: Unfortunately, New York is probably the last place in America that will see true school choice. The public-employee unions (not just the teachers) are too powerful and deeply entrenched. They have managed to buy off Republican legislators as easily as the Democrats. If an angel out there wants to send my book to every single legislator in the state, that might help.
Lopez: In your years of education reporting, do you have a favorite untold story?
Stern: I have a lot of previously untold stories about the New York City school system that will appear in an article I am now working on for the next issue of City Journal. If you’ve read my book and think things are pretty crazy in the public schools, you ain’t seen nothin yet.