Monday, June 09, 2008

Public Schools

Last week I attended a meeting during which the idea of education-choice vouchers came up. The person who spoke up in favor of this approach began by asking this simple question: "Do you believe in competition?"

His point was clear. If parents and students have a choice as to where they can attend school and if they can use public money to make those choices, including paying tuition for private education, schools will be forced to compete for the funding and just naturally become better at what they do or go out of business.

Free market forces to the rescue again.

What is always missing in these discussions are the facts facing large urban school districts today. Vouchers simply will not solve the problems facing our public schools. In fact, funding private schools with public funds will only weaken our already struggling public systems where the vast majority of our children attend classes.

A few years ago, a young man dropped by my office to discuss his plans to run for a seat on our school board. He has since become a good friend.

He started the conversation that day by asking me, "Larry, in your opinion, what is the number one problem facing the DISD today?"

I didn't have to think for even a second to reply with my one-word answer, "Poverty."

I pulled this quote from our school district's website:

"The Dallas ISD is the 12th largest school district in the nation with a diverse population of more than 160,000 students. Almost 70 different languages are spoken in the homes of our students. Serving these students are more than 19,000 employees, making the Dallas ISD one of the largest employers in the city."

What the website doesn't report is this astounding fact: 90% of the students in DISD schools come from households that live at or below the poverty level.

Think about that statistic for a moment.

Over 144,000 students living in poverty in the school district serving one of the wealthiest cities in the world!

It is my opinion that the DISD is doing good work.

Even more importantly, I believe the district improves year-by-year.

One reason this is true is that our superintendent, Dr. Michael Hinojosa, understands the reality of poverty and its pervasive affect on our schools.

Until the rest of us come to understand this reality and its impact on students and families, we will continue to struggle as a community when it comes to educating our children, all of our children.



Adam Gonnerman said...

There was a time, not too long ago, that I would have thought vouchers to be a pretty good idea. Then I got to thinking about the logic of it as I reflected on "No Child Left Behind." Either strategy would take money away from failing schools and give it to succeeding schools, making things worse for those left in the "bad" schools.

In my opinion, tenure rules are one part of the problem that must be resolved before anything else can be accomplished. Teachers who don't succeed, consistently, should be let go. I don't care how long they've worked in the field.

This is a touchy issue with a lot of people, though, and the teacher's unions will keep this sort of change at bay for as long as possible.

The solution, though, is not to be found in cutting funds from struggling schools. Who wins in that situation?

Anonymous said...

It would seem that private schools would develop some of the same issues if they were asked to educate the same level of students.

In my experience private schools are better because they do a better job, they are better because they restrict who is and isn't in class.

Vouchers would simply reveal this reality. In my opinion vouchers are just a way for some to hide the fact that they aren't doing anything to impact those in need as if pushing for a voucher means we have no other responsibility.

I think the body has a responsibility to impact this area.

Anonymous said...

I meant not better because they do a better job...

I would be interested in learning more about your ministry and suggestions you have for what churches can do to impact this area.

I am trying to develop a clearing house of ideas for people who want to impact their community at

I would love your point of view on this.


Adam Gonnerman said...

Actually, I think private schools CAN do a better job. This isn't something I would normally write about, but my daughter had to repeat the fourth grade because of a misspent year in public school. The public school kept saying she had a learning disability and needed expensive therapy. Her "disability" evaporated at the private school, with no therapy.

A better public school could have had the same effect on her, but why risk it? Also, it was a private school that helped her learn English when we moved to the United States from Brazil, while all the public schools were hesitating about her.

We live in a better school district now, so we'll be putting the kids in public school this year. Private school was a huge financial drain, one that a lot of people couldn't afford and which we could barely maintain, but it was necessary.

Anonymous said...


I wasn't very clear in my post. They are currently doing a better job but that may come from several built in advantages. Parent involvement, economics of those who attend etc.

I also realize that some public schools are very bad. My point was if you leveled that playing field and that private school had the same influx of students with the same issues you might find that they would have handled your situation in the same way.

Does that make sense? I mean if they had to deal with all of the same issues I’m not sure they would be any better than a public school.

In our tutoring experience we find that home life has the greatest impact on a childs education.

Anonymous said...

DISD has been on the decline academically since the 1960's. the number of Hispanic students in DISD today points both to the poverty and education issues. Perhaps a return to segregated schools might help - segregation based only on proficiency in the English language. Its a start.

Justin said...

what it all boils down to, in my opinion, is that the state can't do the job of parent. No matter how much money the government funnels into bad schools, they will keep being bad schools so long as parents do not care.

The argument for vouchers, which I'm not sure I myself agree with, is that the vouchers are going to kids whose parents DO care, and want to be involved in their education. Those families are currently wrapped in a vicious cycle of poor education, not necessarily due to the educators, but because they are forced into one school and one school only.

Let's take the DC public school system for example. The cost per pupil in those schools is an astonishing 24,606 dollars a year. Now, I don't know about Dallas, but in Nashville the median private school cost is no where near that, so the argument that vouchers steal money from failing schools is moot. If you take 25% of kids out of the public system, and found them a public school that only cost 13 grand a year (which is what the elite private schools in my former hometown of memphis cost) then you're still left with an extra 13000 dollars and one less student... which means more money can be spent on the students who don't have parental support, and need smaller classes and more caring teachers.

I personally would prefer if we're going to guarantee education in this country, that we do away with the public system and offer vouchers for everyone... let schools operate for profit, and see what happens. It honestly can't be any worse than it currently is.

just me said...

Justin says: "I personally would prefer if we're going to guarantee education in this country, that we do away with the public system and offer vouchers for everyone...It honestly can't be any worse than it currently is."

It can't be worse than it currently is? Education is only bad in inner cities. The vast majority of rural and suburban districts (even those that are not wealthy) do a fine job of educating their kids.

Anonymous said...

In spite of the War on Poverty of the sixties, I don't think there was as much whining about poverty then as today. It gets so weary.

I grew up in relative poverty, our family did not live like Ozzie and Harriet, but we didn't think the government owed us anything. If we had handouts then like people do today my sibs and I would not be where we are now.

As to public schools, the teachers unions need to go. New York pays millions to teachers to do nothing because they can't be fired and can't be around the kids.

Larry James said...

We find it hard to face the brutal realities of poverty in concentrated doses in areas of our urban centers. Today's poverty if more entrenched, more dense and more devastating than most can comprehend. Read anything by Jonathan Kozol and you'll begin to get a feel for what is going on, what is at stake and how hard it is. Harkening back to "white poverty" in the 1950s and 1960s is comparing apples to oranges.

And, my experience tells me that the basic problem is not that parents don't care, but that they are crushed by the overall circumstances of their own lives. Many had an experience in public schools in the 1980s and 1990s that delivered nothing but shame to their mentalities. It is just not as simple as some think.

Reforming public education, as a key component in an overall, comprehensive strategy to attack and reduce national poverty is the only viable option for us.

BTW--segregated schools is no solution. Such misguided thinking will not prepare any of our children for life in this nation or in this world--not the real nation or the real world. What we need to do is bring our children closer together by teaching Spanish and English as second languages for all of our children.

Larry James said...

newheights, thanks for the post and question. At CDM we have "experiential learning" After School Academies and we welcome volunteers who are committed to really be there with us. We don't need more "paratroopers" who drop in every now and then and then go away.

One thing churches can do is to engage the system politically to demand better schools for all of our children. Have members volunteer at schools, write letters in support of those schools and become aware of the issues facing those schools. In my view every congregation in the US should adopt a public school and determine to serve their according to what the school leaders communicate that they need. What would happen if every business professional, every health care professional, every legal professional, etc., etc., etc. with faith took one or two students "under wing" to mentor for several years while they were in school. Summer offers just such a time for this. What if people of faith in a position to do so, hired inner city students during the summer as interns, etc.? I know our Mayor would welcome conversations about this idea. Churches can do a lot once they decide to focus here.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Great post, Larry. I responded with some thoughts on my blog:

We have got to do more as a community to fight poverty itself, not just its various manifestations (crime, drugs, drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, low wages, poor housing stock, homelessness, etc.).

c hand said...

The number one determinate of student success is the quality of his family.

How about this proposal. Any home with a DISD student that fails a scheduled proficiancy exam, loses cable TV access for six months.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the earlier poster who suggested separate schools until English is mastered. All the bi-lingual approach does is drag the native born English speaking students down as they cope with the inability of the Hispanic children who lack fluency. Its "dumbing down" the education system, forcing students to the lowest level based on the ability of those at the lower level. Probably vouchers is a good option, whether for public or private school. No agenda political agenda here, just a desire to ensure that each child is afforded the best chance at a decent education

Anonymous said...

Clearly the current system is rather stagnant. I am a recent graduate of the public school system (2002) and have seen first hand. I even attended a "wealthier" suburban school district. Learning didn't seem to be a priority as much as certain other things.

I say why not give vouchers a shot? What is there to lose? We have been using the current system for so long and clearly the ideas are running thin (either that or the teachers' union is suppressing them for their own interests, which is highly likely).

There is a pervasive theory in economics that sometimes entities need to die. Keeping them afloat diverts viable resources within the dying entity that would spawn into the new things if the entity were to just die.

Certainly switching everything to school vouchers is not practical and is likely too simplistic in a world where people want others to make many decisions for them. But things clearly need to change.

I would agree the main problem is poverty. But what bout the poverty mindset. We need to change the mindset and help people think successfully (and not to become rich, but to become sustainable). We must get parents involved with their children's education. I saw too often friends' of mine laugh off school all the while their parents laughing with them.

Clearly the work you are doing is impressive. I am very interested in something like what you are doing here in a Washington, DC suburb (Frederick, MD). Particularly interesting to me is helping the homeless/transient individuals here find permanent housing and the skills to work (or just a job). If you have any helpful hints you would like to pass along, please so do. You can reach by e-mail at

kozolrocks said...

Additional info to correct some assumptions:
1. Texas doesn't allow teacher unions, and their professional organizations are relatively weak. On the east and west coasts, reform is stunted by unions, but not in Texas.
2. Contrary to public perception, DISD is extremely wealthy in terms of per child spending, so Kozol's work on equity in resources doesn't give as much insight as it did when he first wrote Savage Inequalities.
3. If Limited English Proficiency children were French or Hungarian or Urkrainian instead of Spanish speaking, would the stereotypes persist?
4. Some private schools work better because they have better programs and teachers. If there were a way to send more children to these schools, they would offer an immense gift to children at low performing schools.
Consider this. Some DISD high schools have a $7 million dollar campus budget each year, and they only graduate 250 kids, a majority of whom aren't prepared for work or college. That doesn't include the tax monies sent to 3700 Ross Avenue to pay administrative overhead.
What is wrong with this picture?

Justin said...

I beg to differ that suburban schools are any better. In very wealthy areas, sure. But in middle class suburbs, the academic strength is weak. They may have more kids that make it all the way through, but they get to college not knowing how to write a basic essay. The first year of college for many students is spent learning the skills they should have learned in high school.

Janet said...

Anonymous 1:50~
Why not see learning Spanish (or any second language, for that matter) as an asset for all kids...instead of seeing the Spanish speaking children as deficits to us?? If we created bi-lingual schools where all kids learned two languages, both cultures would be valued and all of the children would have a great addition to their resume and great value in the ever-diverse and world economy we now live in.

Anonymous said...


SeriousSummer said...

"If you take 25% of kids out of the public system, and found them a public school that only cost 13 grand a year (which is what the elite private schools in my former hometown of memphis cost) then you're still left with an extra 13000 dollars and one less student."

Actually, schools received their income based on the number of students, so if a student leaves, the money leaves with them.

Karen Shafer said...

may I suggest that everyone google "East Dallas Community School", founded by a friend of mine, Terry Ford? it defies all stereotypes of poverty parents not caring and of Spanish speaking students 'dragging down' their English-only counterparts.

something like 90% of the students are below the poverty line. parents help pay tuition by volunteering. Ross Perot has been a big supporter. it is mixed racially and culturally.

the children are very successful when they move on to high school and college.

Karen Shafer said...

East Dallas Community School uses Montessori education, and its teachers are certified by Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), [], the most stringent of the certification associations.

Anonymous said...

As a school teacher in a state that is poor and is always on the bottom. I have worked for 15 years in an urban setting in the heart of poverty, a minority middle class setting, and a mixed socioeconomic school with 97% miniorities and currently in rural school with 97% on free or reduced lunch. No matter what the school the problem was the same. School was not important to the community, family, or child. The schools were 7 to 2:30 babysitters. The teachers were the problem and students could(can) do no wrong. Our society has created indivuals who do not have any accountablity. Thanks to welfare we have people who believe they are entitled to mansions, luxury cars and high price clothing. Parents didn't send school supplies not for lack of money, but because someone else was suppose to take care of that. But those same children would be on free lunch and bring $1.00 everyday for chips or ice cream. Homework wouldn't be completed but the minute it was vacation time, parents wanted to know about the free summer extension programs so they wouldn't have to deal with their children all day. Parents with students with mild to moderate learning or health issues would refuse services until that found out there was a disablity check involved. Education issues will never be resolved until parents take responsiblity for their children and understand that they are not entitled to anything. Hard work must be expected for all. Bill Cosby is right - we must expect our children to succeed and demand that they succeed.

Justin said...

Ok Summer, maybe its not like that now. But if we're changing the system, it could be. We could spend more per student in less crowded public schools by sending others to places where they will be better able to succeed and can do all of it for less government money than we were doing it before. Would anyone be against that?

Larry James said...

Prospects for success are made more feasible and visible when the economics shift. Looking closely at the families you so easily dismiss as irresponsible might reveal issues you've never really taken the time to comprehend. I am in the same neighborhood, but I don't see anything like what you see. The American media define success and self-worth in terms of consumer goods. What else would be expect. Until we see this as "our" collective challenge and "responsibility," we have no chance at breakthroughs and no right whatsoever to sit in judgment. We teach personal responsibility every single day. It is a needed and valued message. But this is not the major problem we face in Dallas. It is poverty. By the way, the poor in Dallas aren't waking up in mansions.

c hand said...

It won't change by itself.

Dining-Room Dollars
A Dem discovers the joys of privatization

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:56 has a point. If a parent can't help their own child with homework because they themselves are barely literate because education is not valued in their community, etc. ... that's a vicious cycle that you can't just throw money at to break.

Anonymous said...

And I say that with sadness and maybe a little despair, not judgment.

Larry James said...

Anon 12:39 p.m., "throwing money" has no content, only judgment, no matter what your intentions. Things like reducing class size, rewarding teachers, training teachers and admin folks, updating text books, etc. can make a difference that will overcome deficiencies originating at home. All take money. No surprise there!

Anonymous said...

I only meant no judgment of the people whose suffering I was describing. I feel free to judge proposed solutions.

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