It's not news that around the country, public education is under attack. In some areas, the fight is about high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations - topics well worth debating. But in cities, the attack is much more basic, with very serious implications. And I wonder whether the folks involved - the ones launching the attacks and the ones on the receiving end - realize where this is heading.
Many political leaders, business leaders, and ordinary citizens have given up on city school districts, putting their faith in charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools. The day may not be far off when the public considers those schools the preferred providers of education for city children.
Look at what's happening:
• Most states now have charter schools, and the number of charters is growing. So is support by governors and state legislators. President Obama himself has been a vocal advocate.
• In New York State, which currently has a cap of 460 charter schools, Governor Cuomo and Senate Republicans want to raise or eliminate it. In Massachusetts, charter-school advocates have been pushing the state to do away with its cap.
• Last year, despite opposition by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo successfully pushed for legislation that would help charter schools get space in public school buildings.
• In this year's state budget, Cuomo is tying school aid to education reforms that he wants. Cuomo and Senate Republicans also want to give New Yorkers and corporations tax credits not only for donations to public schools but also for donations to scholarship funds for poor and middle-income students at private and parochial schools.
We all know why this is happening. Many, many children are failing in traditional public schools. And while that tragedy isn't limited to cities, it's in cities - cities with high populations of poor, non-white children - that the situation is the worst. Not coincidentally, that's where most of the charter schools are developing.
I've abandoned my opposition to charter schools because many inner-city parents are demanding an alternative for their children. It's hard to justify forcing them to choose from a list of traditional public schools where the poverty rate is near 100 percent and the achievement level is abysmal.
Charter school opponents argue that nationally, charter schools don't seem to be performing a lot better than public schools. You can find studies arguing both side of that issue, though.
But charter schools are hurting traditional public schools in two ways. They're siphoning off money from public districts. And the families who seek out charter schools tend to be the ones who are most motivated, most engaged in education. (The same is true with the public urban-suburban program, which is now expanding.) The Rochester school district needs the presence of those children and their families.
The children left behind are likely to be those with the greatest needs. And the resources for their schools will have been slashed.
And soon, through an education tax credit, private and parochial schools may increase the competition.
If children in most public schools were doing well, we wouldn't have this problem. And for that, there's plenty of blame to go around: teachers, administrators, superintendents, school boards, and yes, the parents who aren't involved enough in their children's education, who don't insist on good behavior. And I'm growing increasingly exasperated that all of those parties keep blaming everybody else rather than focusing first on the obvious improvements needed in themselves and their peers.
But tragically, hardly anybody with the power to really bring about change is willing to face our biggest problem: the concentrated poverty of the nation's inner cities. Instead, we look for easier, sexier solutions: charter schools, education tax credits, teacher pay tied to test scores.
I know: I keep harping on the concentrated-poverty issue. But its importance dwarfs that of everything else. And by obsessing about everything else, the plain fact is this: We're destroying the public education system in the nation's cities.
Is that really what we want to do?