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Clean up Philly's education fraud with vouchers

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001

Education in Philadelphia's public schools is so rotten that the state government is taking them over.

There are 176 out of 264 schools on the failing list. The primary victims of Philadelphia's public schools are black students whose chances for upward mobility are being systematically destroyed by callous politicians and teachers' unions. If the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan set out to destroy black academic excellence in Philadelphia, I doubt whether he could achieve as much damage. Let's look at some of the facts of black education.

Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 63 percent of black fourth-graders were unable to read proficiently. This is devastating because a child unable to read and write by nine or 10 years of age will probably never catch up. As such, it's virtually a life sentence to the fringes of an increasingly high-tech information society.

Education fraud is further evidenced when Philadelphia's students take college admission tests. At predominantly black high schools, the average SAT scores in 2000 were: Audenreid (590), Bartram (693), Overbrook (726), Gratz (790) and West Philadelphia (709). There were similar average SAT scores at most other predominantly black high schools, including my alma mater, Benjamin Franklin (750), where I graduated in 1954.

A DISGRACE

These scores, out of a maximum of 1600, are a disgrace - especially considering that test-takers get 400 points for simply taking the test. The scores also mean colleges must practice racial discrimination in order to admit many black students.

At neighborhood and school reunions, I've asked former classmates and friends, ''Did we know anybody who couldn't read, or perform simple computations?'' The answer has always been no. Black academic achievement in Philadelphia was higher during the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when there were no black principals, only a handful of black teachers, never a black mayor and maybe just one black city councilman. What's more, blacks were poorer, faced more discrimination and had fewer hopes and opportunities for upward mobility.

That's in stark contrast to today. I don't believe history is going to be very kind to today's black politicians and civil rights leaders who foster, promote and protect Philadelphia's disgraceful public education system.

What's to be done• If you ask politicians and the teachers' union, they'll tell you we need more money. That's bunk. Today's education expenditures are higher than in earlier periods, when there was higher academic achievement. In fact, if anything, there's a negative correlation between education expenditures and academic achievement.

Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker is contracting with Edison Schools, a private company, to run Philadelphia's public schools. Mayor John Street has been fighting the proposal, and Whyatt Mondesire, head of the NAACP's Philadelphia chapter, has threatened to ''shut down the streets.''

PHILLY FLIGHT

While there's nothing that can be done to worsen education in Philadelphia, I don't see much gain in replacing one monopoly with another. Individual parents need to be empowered to fire rotten schools by having the ability to unilaterally take their child out of a failing school.

Right now, a more costly method, for people who have the means and care about education, is to leave Philadelphia. The city's rapid population decline indicates that many exercise that option. A more equitable and efficient way is to create a voucher system, where every parent is given educational choice. Placing education decisions in the hands of parents cannot produce anything worse than the status quo.

My more cynical and cruel proposal is to enact a law whereby teachers must enroll their own children in the schools in which they teach.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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