Sept. 4, 2002
New York City schoolchildren start this fall's classes at a cost
to the taxpayers of $11,000 per pupil. They will eat more school
lunches (800,000) than any institution except the armed forces and ride
on more buses than the city's public transportation system.
But if the past is any predictor of the future, 60 percent of the
kids will remain illiterate or very poor readers. They will be the
victims of what President George W. Bush calls the discrimination of
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed Joel Klein, Bill Clinton's
antitrust boss who spent four years trying to break up the Microsoft
monopoly, to run the New York City schools. Despite his nonacademic
background, Klein could be a spectacular choice because the public
school system is the biggest monopoly in America today.
Don't count on Klein's anti-monopoly zeal, however. The teachers
unions are the single biggest prop of the political power of the
The public school monopoly is not just a matter of bilking the
taxpayers for extravagant costs for salaries, layers of administrators,
perks, buses, lunches, and buildings. The worst aspect is the
ideological monopoly that prevents elementary children from learning
how to read.
This ideology teaches that most children learn how to read
automatically or naturally, and the non-automatic readers should be put
in special education, which rakes in more federal dollars for the
school, or sometimes held back a year or two, or sometimes just put in
the back of the room. Anyone who questions this policy is vilified as
part of a right-wing phonics conspiracy.
So, year after year, the tests report a growing number of children
who do not read at grade level, and the percentages of minorities are
the highest of all. Despite billions of federal Title I dollars spent
to "close the gap," the gap is just as wide as ever, and the only
solution offered is to impose higher taxes and more costly fads.
One of these fads is the federally subsidized $5.8-billion E-rate
program to wire classrooms for the Internet in order to remedy the so-
called "digital divide" between richer and poorer schools. University
of Chicago researchers who studied the results in California schools
just reported that Internet access did absolutely nothing to improve
the test scores of schoolchildren.
It's not fads or technology that can teach children how to read.
It is only teaching them to sound out the syllables of the English
language, a process we call phonics.
Instead of using phonics, most public schools give elementary
schoolchildren books using a "controlled vocabulary," which means a
series of books that repeat the same words ad nauseam and add a few
dozen more words each year for the child to memorize. Because the kids
are not taught to sound out the syllables, they can't cope with the
larger vocabulary and bigger words in the upper grades, and the
percentage who can't read at grade level increases each year.
The nonreaders are humiliated when called on in class. To hide
their embarrassment, they become disorderly and delinquent, and end up
jobless and often in prison.
But the schools have a solution for hard-to-manage nonreaders!
Put them on the mind-altering drug Ritalin so they will sit down, shut
up, and stop disrupting the class.
The New York Post has run a series of news stories about the
horrors related by parents who have been required by schools to put
their children (especially boys) on Ritalin. In one shameful case, the
school coerced a boy to take a "cocktail" of drugs that his mother said
turned him into a "zombie," and then filed a medical-neglect and child-
abuse complaint against the mother after she stopped the medication.
The prescription of Ritalin in the New York schools became so
scandalous that the New York Department of Education just sent a letter
to all district superintendents stating: "Recent press accounts have
reported that some school district personnel have allegedly made the
admission of some students to school contingent upon parental agreement
to administer Ritalin or other psychotropic medications. Please be
advised that school district personnel have no authority to impose such
Parents say this order is a good first step, but it doesn't
address other forms of coercion, such as threatening to hold the child
back a grade or filing child-abuse complaints with the state.
It's not just poor and vulnerable parents who are intimidated into
drugging their children. The President's brother, Neil Bush, recently
announced that his son, attending a private school, was misdiagnosed
with attention-deficit disorder and coerced into taking Ritalin, and
the family spent years resisting the medication.
If Mayor Bloomberg wants to leave a legacy when he finishes his
term, nothing could be greater than a generation of New York
schoolchildren being taught phonics so they can read and start on the
road to living the American dream.