The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A Crisis in the Schools, Yes
– But for Whom?

Jul 1, 2002

Vouchers are put forward as an answer to the “crisis in the schools.”

And it’s true there is a “crisis” in the public schools. But this “crisis,” of course, strikes some students more harshly than others, while some students escape it completely. By all available measures, the public schools which serve the children of the wealthy are doing a very good job.

On the other hand, most public schools which serve the poor and working class communities fail to turn out students with skills adequate to function in modern society.

According to a report printed by the journal, Education Week, more than half of all fourth graders who live in a city cannot read and understand a simple children’s book; more than half of all urban eighth graders cannot use math to solve a simple problem. In “high poverty” urban schools, the results were much worse: only 23% of fourth graders met the “basic” standard for reading; 33% met it in math; and 31% in science. This lack of formation in the lower grades obviously determines what a student can do in high school and beyond.

Even those students who do manage to graduate from high school do so with inadequate preparation for most jobs or for further education. Less than one-quarter of all students in urban schools who graduate have the academic preparation needed to go on to college. Here, again, the averages mask the much harsher reality of the biggest cities. Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities, provided figures for the whole city of Detroit in 1991: of the 20,000 students who had entered the ninth grade, only 7,000 were graduated from high school and only 500 had the minimal preparation needed to go on to any kind of college, including two-year community colleges. Over the last decade, the Detroit School Board itself admits that things have not improved.

The majority of high school graduates in big cities who do go on to higher education qualify only for community colleges, and most of those students quit before they finish a two-year course. In the early 1990s, the Chicago community college system issued a report showing that 97% of students who entered one of its colleges quit before receiving a two-year degree or entrance into a four-year college.

At the other end of the scale are those who don’t make it through school. It is estimated that nearly 10% of all students in urban school systems never enter high school. Of those who do enter an urban high school, slightly over half fail to graduate in four years. In many schools, the drop-out rate is much worse. Kozol cited figures for some of the most impoverished Chicago schools indicating that only about 15 to 20% who started first grade in the early 1990s could expect to graduate from high school. And long before students officially drop out, they just stop coming to school.

Vouchers won’t change this. They’ll only allow children in the poor schools to shift to another poor school.