Over the past several months, leaders in New Haven have made a lot of noise around their vision to change the city’s schools. In July, Mayor DeStefano launched his “School Change” campaign, and he has made reform the centerpiece of his reelection bid.
But is this much-touted school reform movement really reform?
The first step toward creating change is admitting that change is needed. So those of us concerned with the state of public education in New Haven are thankful to be at a point where we no longer have to prove to the mayor and the superintendent of schools that the city’s school system is in tatters. We are glad that we no longer have to quote national studies listing our public high schools as “drop-out factories.” For whatever reason, these leaders have now embraced school reform, which alone is a significant step.
Sadly, though, those behind the charge for change are the same players who drove this system to its last-place school performance ranking. Well, I guess they have added one more person to the team. But, in the end, it is the same leadership, the same schools, the same large bureaucracy driving this process. (Adding a layer to the bureaucracy, such as a new deputy superintendent, is not change or reform.)
How can you have true school reform without making some concrete changes? Our ultimate concerns are about the content of this reform movement. In order to truly transform and improve public education in New Haven, fundamental changes are needed in two areas: school administration and parent choice.
The Board of Education should be made more directly accountable to New Haven parents and students. School reform should embrace any proposed revision to the New Haven Charter that would allow for either an elected or partially elected board. The current board is not held accountable to the public it serves. According to recent reports, a majority of board members have been absent from meetings, which take place in private, outside of the public eye. How are we to entrust our school reform to a group we do not choose or have sway over? Additionally, parents should have a meaningful choice of schools for their children. Clearly, many children are not learning in their current environment. Most of these children probably have the potential and inclination to learn, but are stuck in schools and classes where there may not be students who have the same drive or teachers with the skills needed to teach them.
It is time to have a discussion about school vouchers. There should be a “private option” to this school reform movement. The government generally has a monopoly on public education. This lack of competition allowed the system to function for decades without positive change. Parents— particularly those with lower incomes— have had no choice but to send their kids to the neighborhood school. The current leadership, as evidenced in their call for increased charter schools, agrees that competition is a good thing. Vouchers would provide such competition and get students out of failing schools. And it would happen swiftly; overhauling these schools may take years.
We must act now to create meaningful reform. Don’t let these children languish for one more moment in failing schools. Another generation may otherwise be lost. There is no more time to perpetuate the same old thing. Go big, or go home.
Darnell Goldson is a candidate for alderman in Ward 30.