Breaking the Political Correctivity of the Public School Monopoly:
A Review of Sol Stern's Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice

Jeff J. Koloze
Reproduced with Permission

Sol Stern's monograph is severely underrated. I heard about Breaking Free last year, reading a Citizens for Educational Freedom newsletter. I thought that I would delve into something beyond my usual reading load: abortion novels, feminist poetry (of course! what else would a college professor read?), and student papers. I wanted to investigate why some people do not support the right that parents have to choose what schools their children will attend. I also wanted to know why Stern's book was so controversial.

I can see why now. Stern roughly occupies the same position that Nat Hentoff did in the 1990s. Hentoff challenged the seemingly impregnable (no pun intended...well, it really was intended) politically correct fortress of abortion (whose motto reads "legal during the entire nine months of pregnancy") by showing how the fictitious right to abortion involves brutally suppressing the free speech rights of pro-life protesters. Hentoff supported abortion before he was attacked by fellow liberals for speaking on behalf of pro-life protesters. When he saw how intransigent anti-life thinking could be, Hentoff became pro-life, and the pro-life movement is honored to have this defender of free speech rights as a champion of the unborn.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, here's Stern, adding his voice to the compelling chorus of activists and intellectuals who proclaim that parents are the ones who should control education, not myopic leaders of teachers unions or political demagogues wrapped in the ideological political correctivity of those unions.

Some people hold as a dogma of educational orthodoxy that parents should only choose public schools. Stern suggests otherwise. Some people think that public schools would do better if they had more money. Stern disagrees and cites as evidence the ability of poorly funded Catholic schools in New York to meet the educational needs of parents better than public schools well-financed with tax dollars swelling their coffers. Why more money is not the answer is admirably illustrated when Stern discusses the example of California schools. Money doesn't necessarily mean higher test scores (see pages 125-6.) The issue of funding for public schools is further exacerbated because the demands for more money are based on misrepresentation and lies. Jonathan Kozol was erroneous in thinking that public schools need money, Stern claims, because Kozol's seminal work, Death at an Early Age, is "creative writing" (page 149). (I can hear the hisses now. Someone dared to speak against a monolith of the public school establishment!)

So what does Stern say that is so provoking to the public school establishment and why should every parent who cares for his or her child read this book? Stern provokes the teacher union leadership because he shares not only his experiences with fighting backward public schools in New York City but also his knowledge about alternatives to the public school monopoly. Every parent should read this book for two aspects of encouragement: to be encouraged that there is hope for failing public schools and to be encouraged that one does not simply have to listen to the monopoly that has distorted education for the past thirty years.

Why, specifically, would Stern be provoking? Stern recognizes that opposition to non-public schools, particularly Catholic schools, is based on a pernicious anti-Catholicism whose history dates from the nineteenth century, when immigrants disturbed the Anglo-Saxon Protestant status quo. (This might account for the strange behavior displayed by some public school folk, who seem to hiss, arch their backs, and become saliva-dripping fiends whenever the word "Catholic" is mentioned, like vampires on Friday night horror movies. That just isn't normal behavior, or, as today's young people would succinctly say, "That's wrong".) Stern cites as proof the work of Diane Ravitch, a historian who discusses how anti-Catholicism affected public school leaders (see pages 4, 102, and 170).

However, those parents who send their children to Catholic schools -- whether they are agnostic, atheist, Baptist, Catholic (Byzantine or Roman), Jewish, Lutheran, or members of any other faith -- should be proud of the performance of their sister schools in New York. For example, it is Catholic schools that now serve the poor of New York better than their public school counterparts (see page 10). While public schools were the means for educating the waves of immigrants in the early twentieth century, it is the Catholic schools now which educate today's minorities (see page 174). Stern provides compelling statistics on the high performance of Catholic schools (see pages 175-6).

Moreover, Stern is keenly aware of the differing ideologies between pubic schools and other systems, such as the Catholic schools in New York. Stern objects to one "modern" pedagogic element in particular, the idea "that all children were 'natural writers'" (page 26), which seems to exclude helpful pedagogic tools which may be considered too "traditional" for some teachers unions and educational "experts" (like teaching grammar). After noting some current terms and phrases of pedagogic theory used by the teachers, Stern concludes that "The buzz words became congenial to teachers who didn't enjoy drilling grammar, spelling or penmanship anyway. But it was deadly for the children who ended up graduating without competency in these essential tools of language" (pages 26-7). It's no wonder that Stern became an "education traditionalist" (page 29).

Perhaps what would be most provoking about Stern's work are the intellectual and cultural dishonesty charges leveled against teachers unions. Stern claims that teachers unions misused the work of scholar William Sanders for their own agendas (pages 138-9). Stern aptly discusses E. D. Hirsch's thoughts on "cultural literacy" (page 34) and why students who attend public schools do not have it and then critiques the National Education Association, in particular, whose policies do not support the common culture (page 120).

It is helpful to hear someone recognize that the common knowledge problem is not restricted to the college level. If Americans are becoming dumber in terms of mastering concepts, ideas, and even rote facts -- the accumulation of millennia of human knowledge, then the descent into ignorance could not merely happen once a student enters through the college door. The slide to cultural ignorance must begin earlier. The gap of knowledge needed to become a productive and satisfied member of society begins in the elementary schools and widens by the time the student reaches higher education. Stern helps us to see what damage is being done at the elementary level by a teaching paradigm that ignores the importance of common knowledge.

Fortunately, not all is lost. I had not known how much good work Catholic schools do. Certainly, I never heard such striking statistics and anecdotes from my own pastor. Not even an article here or there published in Catholic periodicals can match the impressive information and praise given in Stern's book. I would recommend that future editions of the book provide source citations so that the reader could investigate the primary material him - or herself.

I also had not realized that there was so much activity around the country to improve public schools by breaking their monopolistic hold on education. The success of the Cleveland voucher program can be attributed to its fairness -- an aspect which influenced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to support the Cleveland voucher program in the Supreme Court's famous Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case. The Cleveland voucher program is constitutional because of its neutrality regarding where parents could send their children. Similarly, Milwaukee, originally opposed to schools providing alternatives to defunct public ones, now works with "choice schools" (page 207). The statistics on the number of voucher programs compiled by Children First America and recorded by Stern are impressive: "By 2002, CFA counted over 115 private voucher programs operating in almost 100 different cities and communities. The programs were serving more than 60,000 poor students nationwide at a cost to their sponsors of close to $100 million per year, all of it privately donated" (page 223). Even John Walton, of the Wal-Mart fortune, supports vouchers. These items are encouraging for parents who want to implement similar programs in their own cities.

I remember thinking, after reading the book, how proud I am that my wife has devoted her entire teaching career to Catholic schools. I also thought that the best investment my wife and I made was not this mutual fund or that stock. Our best investment was the tuition we paid for the parochial and private schools where we sent our children. We paid significant amounts of tuition for our four children to attend Catholic grade and high schools. Why would anybody put him- or herself in such debt when public schools are "free", even though they are supported by tax hikes that constitute nearly half of my real estate tax bill? Stern has helped me to see that the investment we made in tuition has been more than compensated by the "return" that we have now. Our children attend colleges which charge exorbitant tuition, and we are paying extremely little because they earned scholarships -- a testament to the quality of their Catholic grade and high schools.

Every child should have such opportunity. The question, then, is not why public school unions don't want this opportunity for their students, but how we can break the monopoly that these unions have on education. Stern's book may not only be thought-provoking; it may also be a guide for action.

Stern, Sol.
Breaking Free:
Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.
San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003.
248 pages
$25.95 hardcopy