Can these schools be saved?

Salon's week-long look at the state of America's public schools

Published May 22, 2000 11:29PM (EDT)

All across America, the two major presidential candidates are climbing behind tiny desks and perching awkwardly on little chairs in classrooms great and small, to prove their devotion to the issue voters say is the country's most pressing: reforming American schools. With roughly 90 -- 90! -- school visits between them, and almost six months until the election, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have dutifully eaten bad cafeteria food and read themselves hoarse in their quest to become our "education president."

The bad news is that, as Bush likes to say, neither man is running for school superintendent, and the federal role in education funding and regulation is comparatively small, contributing about 7 percent of all school funds. The good news is that the presidency, and a presidential race, provides an unrivalled bully pulpit for a national conversation about the sorry state of America's public schools, one that is long overdue.

There's more good news: In the last few years, the school reform debate has become a good deal less polarized. Last month the American Federation of Teachers -- often skeptical about proposals to improve teacher performance -- endorsed tougher standards for its members, a small but important step toward improving the nation's teaching force. Meanwhile, last week in New York, there was barely a murmur about the fact that new schools Chancellor Harold Levy happens to be white -- New York's first white chancellor in 15 years -- showing that race is no longer quite as divisive, within the public school reform coalition, as it has been for the last three decades. And the very same week, San Francisco chose its first black superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, to lead a district that is only 10 percent African American -- another sign that competence is becoming more important than color when choosing school leaders.

And most education reformers on the left and the right today agree on the need for some form of school choice. Although vouchers still rankle most Democrats, the charter school movement has the backing of many advocates for poor and minority kids, who believe that the publicly funded, privately managed experimental schools can give them the freedom to put student achievement before bureaucratic mandates.

Even vouchers are getting their chance, in Cleveland, Milwaukee and some Florida cities -- though the Cleveland and Florida experiments have been challenged in court. And today the coalition behind vouchers includes some minority parents and fed-up school reformers who are ready to try anything to improve educational options for low-income kids.

Now, back to the bad news: We are trying anything, and everything, in our zeal to reform troubled schools, and much of it isn't working. This week Salon zeroes in on public education with the series "Can These Schools Be Saved?" We'll look at innovative efforts to reform public schools, and what such initiatives have -- and haven't -- achieved.

On Monday, Louis Freedberg looks at one of Washington's best public high schools, Woodrow Wilson High -- the school Gore could have, but didn't, send his children to -- and compares it to Sidwell Friends, the private school attended by young Albert Gore and Chelsea Clinton. Jennifer Sweeney asks why we insist parents make a political statement out of where their children attend school in the first place.

Tuesday, Eve Pell examines White Hat Management, a for-profit company that runs a chain of charter schools in Ohio. Founder David Brennan avidly defends his philosophy: "Are we hurting children because we are doing a good job with them? If we are able to make a profit out of an enterprise where everybody else is losing money, is that bad?"

Wednesday, Salon looks at vouchers: Steven Talbot examines Cleveland's far-reaching, uneven experiment with providing public funds to private schools, while Stanley Crouch asks why conservatives devote virtually all their education-reform energy to vouchers, which even if passed can't serve more than a fraction of the low-income kids in bad schools.

Thursday, Jonathan Schorr takes a look at nonprofit charter schools, and compares a success story in East Palo Alto, Calif., with a failure in nearby Oakland to examine the promise, and the limits, of the charter school strategy.

Friday, James Traub weighs in with his take on the curriculum wars, asking why so many education reformers have stuck with so-called progressive "student-centered" teaching strategies, though research shows that traditional, teacher-directed curriculum -- yes, that includes the dreaded phonics -- leads to improved student achievement. And former teacher Catherine Davis writes about how teacher-directed curriculum can be mowed down and manipulated in wealthy school districts where parents donate big bucks and then expect to have control over curriculum and school policy decisions.

Salon will continue this series on public education regularly throughout this election year and beyond.

By Joan Walsh

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