- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

Anyone who tries to set up a charter school knows that there are a great many obstacles to overcome if the school is to be successful. Not only does a charter school operator have to face the traditional burdens of public schools. but he also has to be successful in finding suitable space, satisfying his customers, and hiring suitable staff (including competent janitors and cafeteria workers).
But if charter schools are ever to become a permanent part of American education we need good reporting about their successes and failures. Anyone interested in charter schools ought to read Jonathan Schorr's Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School (Ballantine, $2.95, 322 pages).
Mr. Schorr, a former reporter for the Oakland Tribune, spent the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 school years looking at the creation of two charter schools in Oakland, Ca. He spent a good deal of time talking to everyone involved (with the prominent exception of Oakland mayor Jerry Brown), including parents, teachers, and activists. He also spends some time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the funder of the Oakland charter school effort, the School Futures Research Foundation, created by Wal-Mart heir John Walton. Mr. Schorr is more attuned to the problems of grantmaking than many reporters; making the book a particularly useful one for any donor interested in education reform.
The Oakland charter school reform effort is somewhat unusual in that it is led by leftists, who see charter schools as a way of empowering the poor. Mr. Schorr is quite good in showing how these activists decided to choose charters after being shifted in an effort to create small schools separated from, but physically part of, larger public schools. He is also good at showing how these new schools struggled with inadequate space, lawless pupils, and teachers and principals who couldn't handle their jobs.
"Hard Lessons" is a well reported book that anyone interested in education reform should read.

When Harvard scientist Robert Putnam first announced that Americans were individualists uninterested in community life, one of his pieces of evidence was a dramatic decline in the membership in the National Parent Teachers Association. But as Charlene K. Haar notes in The Politics of the PTA (Social Philosophy and Policy Center/ Transaction, $25, 159 pages), there are good reasons why parents find PTA membership not worth their time. The National PTA, she argues, "can neither stand up to teacher union interests nor fairly represent parental interests in improving their local schools. On the most fundamental of its tasks, the PTA has proven itself irrelevant."
The National PTA is quite old; it was originally founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers. Mrs. Haar, president of the Education Policy Institute, gives some details of the PTA's history, although not quite enough; surely an organization as old as the National PTA must have a more interesting background than she presents.
Even education policy wonks will find it hard to know little about what the National PTA actually does. According to Mrs. Haar, that is because the organization is a protectorate of the National Education Association. In return for some funding, the National PTA agreed to remain neutral on all issues that concern teacher unions. Since of course the unions are interested in all aspects of education, this left the National PTA with little to do except collect dues and produce platitudes.
Rather than give money to the National PTA, Mrs. Haar suggests that parents set up independent parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), whose membership rises as the National PTA's membership falls.
"The Politics of the PTA" is a pioneering book. She does not condemn the National PTA, but dismisses it as a useless organization that does little to help improve schools. Parents who read Mrs. Haar's book will rightly question whether they receive any return on their investment in membership dues in the National PTA.

The problems of low-income schools continues to plague us. But it's also clear that "sensitive" observers don't help us understand the problems poor people face. A case in point is Michael Johnston's In the Deep Heart's Core (Grove, $22, 219 pages).
Mr. Johnston, a student at Yale Law School, spent 1998-2000 as a Teach for America fellow, who writes the sort of precious prose produced by students who have taken too many creative writing courses. But when he goes to Mississippi, he is shocked to find that poor students fight, gamble, have babies, ignore their classes, and don't particularly want to be in school.
Astonishingly, Mr. Johnston tries to present a work of keen insights and deep observation. But he reveals that he never took notes or recordings of his conversations; "the dialogue in this book," he writes, "is carefully reconstructed from my memory." Mr. Johnston's prodigious memory (about three-quarters of this book is dialogue) does not extend to the way black students actually talk; his efforts to transcribe black dialect are painful and embarrassing.
There are major lacunae in Mr. Johnston's portrait of Greenville High. The teachers and other administrators rarely speak. For example, Mr. Johnston spends some time discussing the school's librarian, a 35-year veteran who has seen Greenville High transformed from an excellent all-white school to a struggling mostly black institution. Surely this librarian must have interesting insights on how the school changed over time. But the librarian is lovingly described, but not allowed to speak. Perhaps Mr. Johnston forgot to take his gingko the days he talked to her.
One hopes that Mr. Johnston will make a good lawyer, because "In the Deep Heart's Core" shows him to be a pretentious writer whose book can be safely ignored.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."

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