Hempstead School District in Nassau County on Long Island has nearly 8,000 students, 70 percent of whom are Hispanic. Approximately 40 percent of the district’s students are not proficient in English.
“For almost 30 years, the district has been failing its students, most of whom are Hispanic and black,” The New York Times reported in February. “During most of that time, a badly divided school board has been at war with itself. Test scores and graduation rates have been among the lowest in the state. School buildings have deteriorated so much that they have closed while children went to school in trailers. And board members have been convicted of theft and fraud.”
The New York State Education Department has issued threats to the district and ordered it to create a plan for improvement. New Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia accepted the district’s plan in February, despite expressing concerns “critical issues” were “not adequately addressed.”
‘”Eventually” Isn’t Good Enough’
Tim Benson, a policy analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News, says the Hempstead case demonstrates why parents need more education options.
“This is exactly the type of maddening story that shows the necessity of private school choice programs,” Benson said. “Poor students shouldn’t be stuck in failing school districts like Hempstead—which has been run like a criminal enterprise for decades, overseen by incompetents, degenerates, and con men—just because they are stuck living in that ZIP code.
“For thirty years, the district and the state have told these parents that, eventually, they’ll get around to fixing Hempstead, but ‘eventually’ isn’t good enough, especially when ‘eventually’ might mean your kid is in his 40s by the time they actually do right the ship,” Benson said. “Give these parents a choice; let them get their children in a school environment where there are people who actually care about them.”
‘Prisoners of a System’
Michael Schaus, communications director for The Nevada Policy Research Institute, says the students’ socioeconomic background is not at fault for the district’s continued failure.
“Socioeconomic segregation is more often than not a symptom of an underperforming school district, not the cause,” Schaus said. “Over the years, as districts fail to provide their students with adequate education, affluent members of the community are able to escape the downward spiral, whether by leaving the district or paying for private school.
“Families with lower incomes, however, have no such options,” Schaus said. “They are essentially prisoners of a system, regardless of how much that system might be failing them.”
Schaus says problems like those in the Hempstead district are common in government schools.
“The public education establishment seems to believe tax dollars should be spent to prop up their monopoly and preserve their status quo, rather than be directed toward ensuring academic results,” Schaus said. “Districts like Hempstead demonstrate precisely why this system-first mentality is so dangerous.”
Ignoring Parents, Students
Schaus says government-school reform efforts focus on bureaucracy, not people.
“Sadly, the conversation in many underperforming districts ignores the single most important aspect of successful reforms: the parents and the students themselves,” Schaus said. “Rather than talking about what bureaucratic institution ought to have more power, oversight, or control, we should be discussing ways to empower parents.
“Giving parents a choice in where and how their child is educated is, by far, the most empowering reform we could implement for students in underperforming districts,” Schaus said.
‘Give Students an Escape Hatch’
Schaus says the best reform for kids being failed by the system is to make it possible for them to get out.
“Currently, the public school system has a monopoly over the vast majority of children,” Schaus said. “For whatever reasons a public school might fail, it behooves those who truly care about education to allow children an escape hatch, a way to pursue alternative educational options that are more results-oriented.
“Even if the state can ‘fix’ things in Hempstead, it won’t be an immediate or permanent solution,” Schaus said. “And in the meantime, how many lives are being ruined because parents and students can’t seek alternative educational environments?”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.