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Perceptions and Reality in the Suburbs

    by Margaret J. McIntyre
    Wilmette Board of Education, 1999-2003

    I am a former Board of Education Member, serving on the Wilmette BOE from 1999-2003 and I have another perspective on "how competitive" Wilmette schools really are!

    First, I agree that more money does not make a better education--not even at New Trier or in Wilmette. But, the belief and perception that it IS the money spent on the schools that produces the New Trier results is promulgated deliberately. This belief provides a common ground for all of the "more money" advocates: local BOE and school administrators, the NEA, the National Association of School Boards, and lobbyist groups like Ed-Red (association of suburban Chicago superintendents), bus companies (and their owners who sit on boards of education), education union members, education attorneys, and the school construction industry -- including the architects that lead boards into hugely expensive building projects requiring referenda, and so on.

    The entire North Shore housing economy depends on folks outside of New Trier township believing its "Schools are the best because of the financial commitment as evidenced by NT test scores and college admission statistics." Maintaining this image -- that a lot of tax money buys superior education -- is THE NUMBER ONE preoccupation of the administrations and BOE of Wilmette and New Trier schools.

    Even when perception is not reality -- it doesn't matter. As long as the HOME SHOPPERS BELIEVE the perception, pay the high prices for the house and justify (in their minds) high taxes to preserve the "superiority" of the schools -- perception will suffice. Think about it, in whose interest is it to tell the secret, if you want your child to succeed beyond the low standards of the ISAT test scores (which is definitely required to be in the honors track at NT) you must supplement their education.

    What few admit, is the degree of "supplementary" education--classes, instruction, tutoring, "enrichment" and so on that is a staple on the North Shore. A very credible survey presented to me while I served on the Board of Education, documented the widespread supplementary education that, in my opinion, accounts for the exceptional achievement of many North Shore kids. The survey revealed that 41% of the families had paid for supplemental instruction.

    And, for the most part, suburbs like Hinsdale and Naperville have quite similar school systems (progressive education dominating) with the only differentiating feature is the amount of supplemental education provided by the affluent parents.

    So, affluent people may make choices based on the illusion that the schools are great--giving them a sense that they have "choice"--but once they get here--they find out. Real estate agents won't tell you to budget a couple thousand dollars per year for supplemental instruction in math or reading. But, you should if you want your child to get a fair shake at New Trier.

    The irony is the huge real estate taxes paid and the regular "school referenda" actually provide money that is counter productive within the school system. The money funds peripheral activities that detract from the academic focus of the schools. The spending on special programs, technology, and "enrichments" within the school day-actually crowd out time for math, reading, writing, geography, history etc. Teachers are on a tread mill to "learn technology and infuse it" into all subjects--so teachers are absent a lot. "Full inclusion" of special education students puts downward pressure on academic standards. Substitute teachers regularly staff the classrooms -- and this is tolerated in a culture where "subs" are an assumed critical function to the status quo school operation.

    The suburban Catholic schools offer little alternative for the public schools because most of them adhere to the same progressive educational practices and fads that dilute the public school education requiring the parents to supplement.

    I urge you to visit the Illinois Loop (http://www.illinoisloop.org/mathdist.html) web site and read about the plight of the Chicago suburbs and math. Most of the suburbs have adopted ineffective math programs which have driven parents to Kumon and other math supplemental programs. The Illinois Loop site will also link you to the Fordham Foundation study of State Standards--which shows Illinois to have some of the lowest. Also, Mathematically Correct (http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com) is the complete web site on math education nationally and locally.

    I agree with the need for vouchers. Even more direct money for charters and "alternatives" to the public school system are desperately needed. Providing money directly to alternative providers (to start schools) would enlarge capacity and make voucher programs even more effective. Then, we would have true competition.

    I have watched Milwaukee's voucher program enlarge public school choice, but also create a more competitive environment for Catholic schools. Take a look at Mercy Academy in Wauwatosa (a suburb of Milwaukee). It's a great Catholic school -- not controlled by its diocese.

    No, it's not just the money--it's having real alternatives and choices that will improve education.

    For these reasons, I support elected officials of school boards, Congress and the Senate who understand and are willing to challenge the status quo model of public education--and work for choice.

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