Judges in the Classroom ; Latest Ruling on School Reform Hurts Local Control

The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 2001 | Go to article overview

Judges in the Classroom ; Latest Ruling on School Reform Hurts Local Control


A court decision in New York last week put an odd twist on a long line of legal rulings aimed at helping Americans better run their public schools.

State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse warned lawmakers that he would intervene if they didn't ensure New York City's students were educated to become "productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment."

He said the state Constitution requires that students have "adequate" education in order to be effective jurors, voters, and workers earning more than poverty-level wages.

For a judge to order school reform from the bench with such vague and immeasurable goals is a scene out of Don Quixote: The motives are noble, but the means are ignoble and illusionary. Even principals at small schools have difficulty implementing such goals.

As New York's newest US Senator might say, it takes a village to raise a child - not a court order.

Process vs. results

Still, in nearly half the states, judges have intervened in various ways over the past decade to rearrange the way states support public schools. The judges usually stick to the process of hard-number funding and taxation in trying to define what's fair for public schools. The New York ruling, however, portends a path of court-dictated results in educational achievement.

It's easy to sympathize with the judge's lament over the faults of the nation's largest public-school system. It's a mess. About a third of high school students don't graduate, and most "leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society," he wrote in a 182-page decision. He gave lawmakers until Sept. 15 to provide answers, such as targeted funding to reduce the number of pupils per classroom.

Trend away from local control

Like other judges in such cases, he was asked in a lawsuit to put the burden of reform at the state level, reducing the responsibility of local communities. That's a worrisome trend among reformers who neglect what drives education to begin with.

Most parents still believe they can buy into quality public schools by buying a home in a well-to-do community. …

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