Thank you very, very much Henry [Olsen], and welcome to the New York City Conference On School Choice. We're very honored to have all of you here and we hope that this will help further this enormously important movement.
We're also very honored to have with us Governor Keating of Oklahoma, Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico, Mayor John Norquist of Milwaukee, former Governor William Weld of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok, and New York State Assembly Republican leader John Faso. And we have many distinguished guests in the audience, including the chairman of CUNY, Herman Badillo. And then we're going to have many distinguished panels and interesting panels during the day. And we're hopefully going to get people to concentrate on a new subject other than these decisions from the United States Supreme Court. [Holds up U.S. Supreme Court decisions on Florida recount]
Last night when I got home, since I couldn't figure out from the television and the radio what was decided, I got someone to get it off the Internet for me. And then I separated it into the per curiam opinion, the Rehnquist-Scalia-Thomas concurring opinion . . . Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer . . . Souter-Breyer-Stevens-Ginsburg [Laughter] . . . Ginsburg-Stevens-Souter and Breyer [Laughter] . . . Breyer-Stevens-Ginsburg [Laughter]. And some of them are Justice Breyer, with whom Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg join, except as to part 1(a)1 [Laughter] and with whom Justice Souter joins as to part 1 dissenting. [Former U.S. Solicitor General ] Charlie Fried could do this, right? I mean, he could end up figuring out how to do this.
But, so maybe we can get off this topic and get on to another one that really gets us back to the business of governing, and the work that government can do that can actually help people and assist people. This is an important forum and we should take advantage of it for furthering this idea that's a very, very important one.
There's no question that many parents feel, quite correctly, that their children are not getting the education that they deserve and that they should have. And that feeling is the strongest among parents who are the poorest, and without resources to, in essence, buy a much better and higher quality education for their children.
And that has many implications, but let me suggest one that's very important because the public school system in America has been in many ways the great equalizer. It's been the system through which immigrant children, poor children who maybe wouldn't have the advantages in their own home of reading and culture and literature-it's the way in which they've been able to access the American Dream. It's the way in which they've been able to develop the tools that were necessary for them to compete and to succeed in society.
And you go back to the latter part of the 19th century and much of the 20th century, certainly the first half of it, and it was the American public school system that was kind of a tool of democracy in that the poorest children could get a high-quality education, unleashing themselves, unleashing talents and abilities that maybe would not have been developed. And it worked very, very well to create an America in which, to some extent at least, we could say that the American Dream was available for those who had a good education and would work hard.
We cannot say that that's the case today in America. At least not uniformly, or in American cities. Public schools are not doing that for enough children. And we don't really need public opinion polls to figure that out, although public opinion pools tell us that.
I thought the most telling poll was the one a couple of years ago, when Ted Forstmann and the Children's Scholarship Fund offered scholarships to students throughout the United States of America. And those scholarships were offered in the City of New York. I think there were 2,500 scholarships that were available for children who were in public schools and their parents who wanted the option of a private or parochial school education.
For 2,500 scholarships there were 168,000 applications. That's an enormous number of parents crying out for help, for an option, for another option for their child other than the one that the government is forcing on them and their economic circumstances are constraining them to have to accept for their children.
In a country that keeps developing the notion of freedom in a responsible way, and the idea of individual choice-and giving individuals as much of an opportunity to make choices for themselves-it seems to me highly inconsistent that there's this tremendous resistance on the part of many who otherwise believe in freedom of choice and liberty for people, in constraining this movement from getting any further.
And I hope that we can open up the dialogue. And it's probably worse here in New York City than it is most other places, meaning the resistance to the idea of choice and the idea of options. It is absolutely true that there are enormously successful public schools in the City of New York and all over the country. And there are enormous successful public schools, not just the obvious ones that have been very successful for generations, but enormously successful public schools in places where right next to them there are schools that are failing, that do it against the odds. And there is absolutely no reason why anyone should give up on the public school system.
The idea of choice is intended to save public education by opening it up to much more competition, much more sense of innovation and creativity.
I think of the early experiment on privatization in Phoenix, Arizona with sanitation. Maybe that goes back twenty years? And it was a very, very innovative idea at the time. And that was to take all of the sanitation services in the City of Phoenix, I think they subdivided the city into six or eight districts, and they put them all out to bid and allowed the private sanitation companies to bid against the city municipal sanitation department.
And the first cycle of the contracts, the private sanitation companies won all of the contracts in all six or eight districts. By the second and third cycle the municipal agency starting winning two and then three and eventually almost all of the contracts. Because they straightened out the practices that they had been engaging in that made them inefficient, ineffective, unable to deliver services.
On a different scale and for different reasons, that's precisely what would happen if we had any one of the forms of school choice of which you'll hear many different examples from Mayor Norquist and from the governors and from the secretary and others. There are many examples of how you can do school choice.
But the ultimate result would be exactly the same. The ultimate result would be that the public schools would rise to the occasion. They would straighten out the reasons why parents might not want to send their children there. They'd straighten it out on their own and they'd straighten it out individually, depending on the particular school. If it was discipline, well then they would do the things that were necessary to create a safe environment so that a parent would feel comfortable, just as comfortable in sending the child to a public school as sending the child to a religious school or a private school.
If the issue was education, declining reading scores, then they would be forced on their own terms to solve that problem. If it were math or science or not enough athletic programs, then they would try to solve that. And all of a sudden the focus would change from the focus that exists today to the focus that it should be.
And I see choice as one way of re-establishing the philosophy of education for children in America, particularly public education. Right now the main purpose of the New York City public school system is not to educate children. I want you to think about that for a moment. The main purpose of the system is not to educate children. There is a more important, more overriding purpose, and it exists in the laws, in the agreements and contracts and everything else. The single most important rationale of the New York City school system is to protect the jobs of the people in the system. It exists for the purpose now of creating, protecting and enshrining numerous jobs. And anything that affects those jobs is not allowed to be considered or done. Job protection is more important than anything else.
Now, in case you think that's an overstatement, let me see if I can prove it to you this way:
Yesterday we had, I believe it was eighteen schools that were put on the state's list of Schools Under Registration Review. In other words, these are schools that are considered to be consistently failing, schools in which the children's performance is declining, measured by any standard. Regents Exams in the case of high schools, and promotions, reading scores, math scores in the case of lower schools. All right.
What would you do to straight out those schools immediately? What you would do is you would think, well, those schools that have been consistently failing are going to need a change in personnel. Just like if it was a consistently failing business or other government agency, you'd have to change the people that are running that subdivision. Well, you can't do that. Tenure prevents you from changing the teachers. The inability to give merit pay, bonus pay, prohibits you from giving more money to the teachers you want to keep, because you look at the school and you say, I want to straighten this school out. About a third of the teachers are terrific; I want to pay them more money so they don't go somewhere else. So we keep them in this difficult school.
On the other hand, you think, about a third of the teachers have been here for the last five or six years and every year their classes seem to be declining. Their math scores go down, their reading scores go down, their passing rate goes down, students don't want to go to their classes. These teachers are teachers that we have to remove.
That takes you three or four years of a courtroom fight, so you have to keep the teacher. Maybe we'll just pay them less money and they'll kind of get the point that this is not the profession for them. But you can't do that either, because you have to pay all teachers exactly the same amount of money. You pay it to them based on the number of years of service, not the quality of their service.
That's a system that puts protecting the job of the teacher first. That's a system that says that the performance of the child is irrelevant to the job of the teacher.
There's no way in which you can find anything that connects to that job that has anything to do with the performances of the student. The salary is the same whether the teacher is a great teacher, an average teacher or a lousy teacher. The raises are the same, whether the teacher is a great teacher, an average teacher or a lousy teacher. And the ability to even remove the worst teachers is virtually not there because of the set of laws and contracts that surround and protect everyone. Well, what is this then? What does it protect?
It's not protecting the ability to educate children correctly. It's protecting the jobs of the people in the system, which is the most important reason for which is now exists. And that has to change. The most important reason for which any school exists is the education of the child. And then everything else flows from that. Then from that, from the good job you're doing educating children, then you become an important teacher and a very well-paid teacher. And if it's a bad job, just the opposite happens.
I believe that choice will allow that to happen because all of a sudden the evaluators of the schools will be the people who have the most interest in the schools: the parents. Even more important than reading scores and math scores and graduation rates and all the other things that we use, all of which are important, if the parents have the opportunity to evaluate their children's schools, that's going to create the kind of dynamic change that we need.
And therefore, I see it as one of the few things that can be done that really gives us a chance to save public education-to revive it, and to make it work. And much like what happened in Phoenix, it might very well be if you did in New York City a major school choice program, you might see some decline to start in the size of the public school system, but after a short period of time we would find that the public schools that survived-and there'd be many-would all be good ones, and the ones that didn't would rebuild themselves. And they'd rebuild themselves along lines that make themselves attractive to parents, meaning, doing the things that parents want done.
Every good school is an overcrowded school. If a school is an excellent school, then everybody wants to go there. And parents are more than willing-I certainly would be, I imagine you would be, all things being equal-to have their child in an excellent overcrowded school in which the child is safe and the child is getting an excellent education, than in a school with a classrooms of eight, ten and twelve, but in which nobody's getting a good education.
Any good school is a school that's going to draw a lot of people, and it should do it on its own terms and its own merit.
Finally, I'd like to ask you to consider the following, because we're in Times Square today. If you came to Times Square ten years ago it wouldn't look like this. In fact, we wouldn't even be here in this hotel. Times Square was filled with prostitutes and it was filled with drug dealers. There were no Disney Theaters and there was no Ragtime, and most of the hotels you see here weren't here, with maybe one or two exceptions. And the crime rate in this part of the city was among the highest in the city.
Now it's flourishing, it's thriving and it's doing very well. And families come here without any problem at all. And we're going to have a great New Year's Eve celebration here in a few weeks for millions and millions of people. Ten years ago, there were very few people that thought this was possible.
And the reality is the same thing is true with education today. In New York City more than anyplace else, we resist change. I don't know why that is. We're more resistant to new ideas and to change. And unfortunately in education all of the innovative and creative things are happening elsewhere. That's why we're very, very honored to have all of the distinguished guests that we have here today. They're more open to change, like in Milwaukee. So we're very interested in hearing what the mayor of Milwaukee has to say, because that is a city in which a lot of poor parents are being given the opportunity that rich parents have-the opportunity to get the very best education for their child.
And as a society we have to be really very concerned about that. Because we don't know where the next great scientist, the next great innovator, the next great leader is going to come from. Whether he or she is going to come from a poor family or a rich family. And it's a shame that we're cutting off those opportunities for ourselves. Therefore, I look forward to the ideas that emerge from this conference.
And I do hope that it opens up some of the thinking of the people who are so afraid of this idea, so afraid to even experiment with it . . . so afraid to even try it . . . so afraid to even allow it some chance to give some children the opportunity for a better education. I would hope they would open their hearts and their minds and start to think about the idea that education is about children, not about protecting jobs and not about politics. Thank you very much.
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