1.13.2007

Alicia Colon: Quality Schools Make the Difference

Alicia Colon may be the only columnist in New York City writing from a conservative perspective--and I read her. (Click here for her archives at the NYSun.)

I read her writings because I like people that think differently than the rest of the herd. And Colon is clearly not part of the heard in New York City. I also like that she writes from her experience as a Latina living in Staten Island, New York.

So here's her response to the "Badillo said Latino parents don't care about education" brouhaha engulfing my hot-blooded and too easily victimized cousins.

As a conservative with a Catholic school education, Colon is a strong supporter of private school choice, including for poor and minority children. She doesn't much care for what she sees as the over-politicization, wasteful and ineffective public school system. So she and Badillo find themselves on the same sides of the political aisle these days even though Badillo spent the bulk of his life as a liberal Democrat.

But what she says that's caught my attention, and in some ways undermines Badillo's criticism of Latino parents, is that both Colon and Badillo attended schools that worked. That is, the Badillo attended school in the 1940s when NYC public schools were producing some of the country's greatest thinkers, scientists and writers. For those that could attend school, the NYC system was top notch. Badillo didn't even have parents to push him to succeed in school. That push came from Badillo himself and his teachers. Badillo's was raised by an Aunt in the Bronx where she struggled like most other Puerto Ricans at the time just to survive.

Colon's parents were also not "active parents" either. They enrolled her in the local free Catholic school and hoped that the school would do what a school is supposed to do: educate.

In both cases there were no "involved" parents, but the Colon and Badillo prospered academically anyway. Why? Because they were lucky enough to have attended good schools. That is, the schools did their jobs to educate the children. And the parents did their jobs to stay out-of-the-way and work to provide their children with shelter, food and love.

Speed forward to today and we can see that poor Latino parents probably act very much like they did during Badillo and Colon's youth. They struggle to ensure that their families have the essentials and they worry. In regards to schools, they hope that the educators there are doing right y their children.

So it's one thing to encourage and even challenge poor parents (and that's what we're really talking about) to raise their expectations for their children and their children's schools, but it's another thing to say that Latino children fail academically because Latino parents don't care.

If most Latinos attended quality schools and they were still failing at high rates then Badillo might have a valid point about the parents. But if the schools are lousy (and I've visited many of the NYC schools attended by poor Latino children) and they're not functioning anywhere the levels of those Colon and Badillo were lucky enough to attend, then how is the resulting mass failure the fault of society's most disadvantaged parents?

To colon's credit, she doesn't claim that somehow she or her parents were in anyway superior or better than anyone else. She honestly admits that she excelled not because of "involved" parents but because the schools worked.

Colon’s solution, which is in keeping with her experience, is to stop forcing the children of struggling parents to crappy schools. She proposes giving parents tuition vouchers so they can enroll their children in better schools.

Politics aside, it seems to me that Colon’s assessment of the problem—the lack of quality free schools for poor children, and her proposed solution—tuition vouchers for the poor to pay for enrolling in better private schools, are both more elegant, honest and productive than blaming poor parents.

A question that comes to mind is if why is the Manhattan Institute celebrating a man who’s saying that the real problem is not the schools but the parents? Aren’t they the champions of school choice as a tool for liberating poor children from bad schools dishing out doomed lives?