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6th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 6, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Sol Stern’s new book is really two books in one, and each is so compelling that it could easily stand alone. Through his articles in City Journal, where he is senior editor, and frequent commentary in the daily press, Mr. Stern has emerged as this generation’s most knowledgeable observer of the nitty-gritty of life in New York’s public schools. In “My Public School Lessons,” the first part of this book, he offers a first-hand look at what really is going on from the perspective of a parent who is also a public policy-savvy journalist.

Then Mr. Stern takes his perceptive observations a step further with a strong argument for the establishment of voucher and charter programs to bring real choice to our educational system.
Three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Mr. Stern’s mother led him to the door of his neighborhood school, P.S. 6 in the Bronx. Just two years earlier, he had arrived at our shores speaking only Hebrew. Mr. Stern’s school career mirrored that of many Jewish New Yorkers of his generation. Successfully navigating his way through eight years at P.S. 6, he passed the test to win admission to Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s academically elite schools. He then went on to argue politics in the storied lunchroom of City College, where every left-wing splinter faction had its own table. Then it was on to graduate school at Berkeley.

By the mid-1960s Mr. Stern was a prominent New Left Journalist, an editor of Ramparts Magazine who published a famous expose of C.I.A. infiltration of the National Student Association.

But by the time his own children were ready for school, Sol Stern had evolved into a different kind of revolutionary, one who still questions the status quo,but is equally unafraid to question the failed public policy solutions coming from the left.

Mr. Stern provides an interesting subtext, as he traces his own early admiration for the educational observations of author Jonathan Kozol. As Stern moved to the center, Mr. Kozol turned six months of work as a substitute teacher in Boston into a career — and riches — as the most radical, and Mr. Stern asserts, the most destructive, educational critic in America.

Today, Mr. Kozol is the most frequently heard voice advocating for higher school spending. Mr. Stern’s retort is “why?” He rightly points out that substantially increased educational funding has not translated into better educational results.

New York school administrators can breathe a sigh of relief; the second of Mr. Stern’s two sons has now nearly completed his public school career. From his writings, it is clear that once Sol Stern has an excuse to enter a New York City school, he will soon know more about what is going on there than anyone, maybe even the principal.

Mr. Stern will generously offer praise where it is due, but he is equally quick to debunk the conventional wisdom about the schools that are considered New York’s very best. Mr. Stern’s two sons attended some of these schools, and Mr. Stern reveals the sorry truth about the wizards behind the curtains.

Even at his alma mater, Stuyvesant, Mr. Stern finds reason for concern. Both of Mr. Stern’s sons followed in their dad’s footsteps. One of them was subjected to a totally unqualified 74-year-old math teacher who managed, under union seniority rules — the U.F.T. contract, and the work rules therein, is one of Mr. Stern’s all-time pet peeves — to transfer into Stuyvesant. Not every math teacher can teach at Stuyvesant, where it is not unusual for the kids to outpace their teachers, but this gentleman was so far out of it that he needed to audit basic courses, along with students.You can’t make up this stuff.

The administration at Stuyvesant, hampered by the twin bureaucracies of the Board of Education and teachers union, was powerless to prevent this clearly unqualified person from assuming a teaching post there. It was similarly unable to retain and appropriately compensate a truly competent math teacher, a Roumanian émigré who taught at the university level in his native land before arriving at our shores — until Mr. Stern himself intervened.

The new arrival quickly established himself at Stuyvesant as a gifted and popular addition to the math department, just the kind of person you would expect at a school of this reputation. But he was hampered by his lack of New York State certification — he hadn’t yet taken the formal education courses that would “teach him how to teach.”The fact that he was already doing a sterling job teaching was irrelevant to the bureaucracy, or even to his own union.

Mr. Stern recounts an encounter he had with former Chancellor Harold O. Levy at which the subject of certification was raised. The chancellor erroneously used the terms unqualified and uncertified interchangeably. Mr. Stern observes that at Dalton, the elite private school where Mr. Levy sent his own children, few if any teachers were certified by the state. This did not dissuade Mr. Levy from choosing Dalton, nor did it stop him from shelling out the more than $20,000 per year tuition that Dalton charges.
But Mr. Stern does not castigate the former chancellor. Rather, he applauds him for exercising choice with respect to his own children. That’s what Mr.
Stern wants for all children, the solution he advances in the final chapters of “Breaking Free,” subtitled “The Imperative of Public School Choice.”

Mr. Stern turns his attention to the success of Catholic schools, achieved at a bargain-basement cost in comparison to their public school counterparts. This, of course, is the very stuff from which the coming national debate over vouchers will be cast. He visits these schools, evaluating their success with the benefit of his own experiences as New York’s most perceptive public school parent.

Mr. Stern also evaluates the experience of the private voucher programs, and visits Milwaukee and Cleveland, where new voucher and charter programs are testing, thus far with some success, the expectations of their proponents.

It is Mr. Stern’s contention that choice will force the public schools, the bureaucracy that controls them, and the unions that so profoundly influence them, to change. He views this as a new civil rights movement. Competition, harnessing the power of the free enterprise system that the young, radical journalist of the 1960s initially rejected but later came to embrace, holds the answer. That is the message so well delivered in “Breaking Free,” a book that offers entertainment and enlightenment to anyone concerned about the future of our schools.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.


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