By Dan Lips
Credit Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein for implementing an innovative education idea: giving parents the chance to grade their kids' schools. Earlier this year, the city government sent the first "Learning Environment Survey" to 1.8 million parents, students, and teachers in the public school system to provide customer feedback.
"For any successful organization, finding out what customers and users think works-or needs work-is key to improvement," explained Mayor Bloomberg. "This is the most extensive effort in the history of American education to solicit a community's ideas and views about their public schools."
So what should New Yorkers expect when the survey results are made public this fall? One likely finding will be that parents desire better educational opportunities for their children. That view is expressed in parents' history of seizing on opportunities for their children to escape the public school system.
In 1998, financier and philanthropist Theodore J. Forstmann raised $170 million to provide tuition scholarships to low-income children to attend private school. In all, Forstmann's Children's Scholarship Fund offered 40,000 scholarships nationwide. More than 1.2 million children across the country applied.
In New York, 168,000 students applied for scholarships-about 29 percent of the eligible children in the city. Families who applied had to pledge to contribute about $1,000 annually for five years to supplement the $2,500 scholarships. This means that New York's poorest families pledged to pay $168 million annually to escape the city's troubled public school system.
Unfortunately, only 2,500 New York students were lucky enough to receive scholarships. Today, one wonders what happened to the other 165,000 children who were stuck in public schools, where the graduation rate is only 50 percent.
Some New York leaders sought to meet the demand for better opportunities by expanding options for parents. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed a pilot school voucher program for disadvantaged kids in 1999. But the plan met with stiff resistance from public school officials and was never implemented.
However, the city has made some strides in offering families more choice. Today, New York has 58 public charter schools serving 15,000 students; another 12,000 children are on waiting lists to enroll in charter schools. After years of political bickering, state legislators in Albany have finally agreed to increase the cap on the number of charter schools that are allowed in the state from 100 to 200. Approximately 50 new charter schools will be allowed to open in New York City.
Unfortunately, this will only help a fraction of the tens of thousands of kids trapped in the city's public schools, where, on average, only one out of three 8th graders is reading at grade-level.
More money is not the answer. New York City already spends more than $12,600 on each student in public school every year, well above the national average.
Mayor Bloomberg's "customer feedback" survey is a small step in the right direction toward empowering parents. Yet he should recognize that parents have been giving feedback for years in their efforts to escape public schools whenever they have been given the chance. The question is whether politicians will ever give them the opportunity.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.