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13th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 13, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

When I was a child growing up in the west Bronx, everyone knew exactly what school he or she would be attending. In my neighborhood, if you lived east of the Grand Concourse, you were zoned for P.S. 46 on East 196th Street. Those living west of the Concourse attended P.S. 86, on Reservoir Avenue, right behind the Kingsbridge Armory. Zoned schools were a part of growing up during the period that many feel was New York’s golden age. Our schools contributed to the success of every facet of life in New York’s great neighborhoods.

Residents of our city’s few remaining middle income enclaves today don’t need to be reminded of the fragile nature of their neighborhood schools. Every such community in our town is desperately trying to hang on to the one thing that defines them as a successful community. Real estate advertising here in the city often boasts of Douglaston schools, Bayside schools, even District 26 schools. This contributes to property values and ultimately to tax revenues and communal pride.
All of those things are now at risk. An ill-conceived federal law — made worse by an foolish state education department and compounded by a boneheaded federal interpretation of the original statute — is being embraced by those running the city school system. This could finally and permanently remove the middle class from the schools in the City of New York — unless it is resisted.

The law I am referring to is the No Child Left Behind Act, the ultimate horse designed by committee. The illconceived mandates of this law will, if not revised, devour the urban middle class — of all races — while preserving white affluent suburban enclaves and doing nothing for those children at risk.

A provision of the law states that if a child attends a “failing” school, he or she is entitled to either special tutoring or transfer on demand to a “non-failing school” in the district — which the city is foolishly interpreting as the entire city, not just the local community school district.

The fiction that moving children to different schools will result in improvements in performance is the cornerstone of this provision. This mythology is embraced by liberals and conservatives alike.They are wrong.

In the Bronx, we know better. My home borough has been victimized by this strategy for 40 years. At first zones were compromised to promote integration. Then they were further manipulated to alleviate overcrowding. The disastrous results are self-evident, as the once thriving middle class has abandoned all but a handful of beleaguered Bronx communities.

In 1992, the zone of Riverdale’s M.S. 141 was expanded to include children living in the Marble Hill public housing project and the troubled Kingsbridge Heights community.These children, up until that time had been zoned to their neighborhood school, M.S. 143, successfully for generations.

At the time, M.S. 141 had hovered in about 25th place in reading of the city’s 225 middle schools. Scores at M.S. 143 were much lower, but certainly not at the bottom of the citywide list. Once these hundreds of children were shipped off to Riverdale (up to 40 minutes away by two buses), scores at M.S. 141 sank like a stone. The new arrivals didn’t do better in their highachieving school, they did worse.

If the premise behind the transfer provision of the No Child Left Behind Law was accurate, the shifted children would have attained scores near the same level as the neighborhood children already at M.S. 141. After all, nothing had changed. The same building, the same teachers, the same principal remained. Only the children were different.

What about integration? M.S. 141 was dancing on the edge of diversity, with about a 30% white population before the rezoning. Within four years, it lost half of its white population, becoming a de facto all-minority school. Yes, my liberal friends, diversity was the biggest casualty of this social engineering scheme.

Racial tensions are the certain outcome of any scheme to move children from district to district. This became clear the other day at a City Council hearing when City Council Member Helen Foster of the South Bronx charged that the transfer provisions will result in middle-class parents trying to protect their “lily white schools.” I don’t know what city (or planet) Ms. Foster lives in, but I don’t see many lily white schools within our city limits. I do, however, see a number of diverse outer borough schools at grave risk.

In previous columns, I have discussed the flawed process by which the State of New York named scores of perfectly good schools to the list of those failing. Two weeks ago, the federal government toughened up their regulations by mandating that children must be allowed to transfer from the failing schools into the so-called better schools even if those schools are filled to the brim. Despite the clear evidence that such transfers do not work to the benefit of the children, it seems that the federal government is hell-bent on making sure that every good neighborhood school becomes an overcrowded, failing commuter school.

While the new city Department of Education has indicated that it will comply with these regulations, other cities, such as Los Angeles, are threatening to take the federal government to court. The City of New York must consider this option as well.

What can be done? Firstly, the city must not comply with these destructive, ill-conceived regulations. If the city lacks the will, then parents themselves should examine this route.

Secondly, the state legislature must change the criteria that the State Education Department is using to designate failing schools. By limiting the list to schools that are truly failing, the state will control the possible damage done to communities by wholesale compliance with the transfer provision.

Failing this, the alternative to middle income communities may well be to petition to secede from the city and ask to become independent villages and towns. Scarsdale’s schools are protected from an influx of students from failing schools, as are Great Neck’s and Greenwich’s.Why must the schools and communities in New York City’s few remaining middle income enclaves bear a burden that the suburbs are not asked to share?

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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