Urban League School Proposal Worth a Try

Our recent coverage of the Urban League's school proposal apparently ruffled some feathers at Madison Teachers, Inc., particularly executive director John Matthews.

Mr. Matthews expressed concern that nobody from the public education establishment (my term) was interviewed to get their perspective, and he's right. We should have contacted him and others to get their views. Very perfunctory, but it would have given us a chance to ask a few pointed questions.

For example, how come every mention of competition sends you into suppression mode instead of making you determined to prove to the consumers of education — parents and kids — that you have the better educational product?

Second, why isn't the disappointing disparity between local white and non-white students on the ACT test as much a local priority as a mediocre-speed train?

Finally, something Mr. Matthews might not be aware of, so perhaps it's unfair to ask. Here goes: How come the Los Angeles teacher's union disgracefully tried to ostracize legendary educator Jaime Escalante, even after he proved that Hispanic students at his East L.A. high school could learn advanced placement calculus? I wonder if it was because of Mr. Escalante's willingness to instruct as many as 50 children in a classroom — gasp! — because he thought he could reach more kids that way?

Talk about turning conventional wisdom on its ear.

Like the late Mr. Escalante, who passed away earlier this year, Urban League of Greater Madison President and CEO Kaleem Caire wants to reach kids, and he doesn't give a rip whose sensibilities he offends in the process.

Thanks goodness for that, because when this economy finally turns a corner, the business community will need quality employees. If we're ever going to stop obsessing about the labor shortage, one thing we have to do is make sure that more economically disadvantaged kids are marketable to employers. Education is their escape route.

But what do we hear from public education unions? They gripe about Kaleem Caire. They gripe about School Choice as though they deserve a monopoly on our tax dollars, no matter how the public schools perform. They even gripe about their ally in the White House, President Obama, who is quietly trying to turn the educational odds in the favor of economically disadvantaged children.

The President has laudably provided additional funding for the Pell Grant program, which says to kids that if they take care of business in grades K-12 and get accepted into a college or university, financing their college education will not be a barrier. But they first have to be admitted into an institution of higher learning.

That's why public education should be willing to innovate, a la Jaime Escalante, who was celebrated in the motion picture Stand and Deliver. As Escalante proved, teachers are an essential part of the solution, as are parents who demand the best effort from their kids, and the unflinching determination of the kids, themselves.

We've been talking about a rising tide of mediocrity in public schools since the early 1980s, but as those test scores suggest, we're not doing enough about it. When it comes to educating the poorest children in Madison and elsewhere, it's time to try something else.

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