TCS Daily

The Democrats' Niagara Problem

By Ryan H. Sager - December 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Democrats wondering how President Bush turned the Republican Party into the party of education reform might want to check out Niagara County, in economically depressed upstate New York.

If they did, they might find that it is not so much the Republicans who have won ground -- though the GOP has done an admirable job of bringing new ideas to the battle -- but the Democrats who have ceded it.

In Niagara, a fierce political fight is raging over a proposal to open up a new public charter school. At first, it might be hard to see why there's any controversy at all.

The man spearheading the drive to open the new school, Pastor Richard Hague, embarked on his current quest after bearing witness to the failure of his community's existing public schools. In Niagara Falls City, more than 60 percent of eighth-graders are unable to pass state English tests (including more than 70 percent of black and Hispanic students) and nearly half are unable to pass math.

But for Hague, who is African American, these aren't just numbers. "The tragedy is this," says Hague. "In my church, I have apologized to young adults and middle-aged adults, people who used to be called Generation X . . . They sit in my pews in my Bible class, and they cannot read."

"And now their children are a second generation of failure," he says.

So, Hague wants to offer the children of Niagara something different: a longer school day, a longer school year, school uniforms and an intense focus on the basics.

"We've got to nail math. We've got to nail English," Hague says, his voice rising. "We don't want them to have a grasp, but a mastery of the core subjects."

It's a strategy that has worked for charter-school students around New York and around the nation. A study put out in September by Harvard education economist Caroline Hoxby, encompassing 99 percent of all charter-school students in America, found them outperforming their public-school counterparts by 5 percent in reading and 3 percent in math. Schools that aggressively promote the longer-hours, harder-work philosophy that Hague is promising tend to see even bigger gains.

But, success has its enemies. Namely, failure.

The administrators of districts like Niagara Falls City and their teachers union counterparts, who have failed to educate generations of children, tend to gang up to block any competition that might threaten their cushy little monopolies.

Such is the situation in Niagara. There, the superintendent has allegedly pressured three members of the proposed school's board of directors to resign -- one was an architect who had business with the city and one was a public school teacher. The union also conducted a letter writing campaign aimed at the state's Board of Regents, which has to approve the Niagara Charter School's application. Furthermore, members of New York's Democrat-controlled Assembly -- owned lock, stock and barrel by the teachers union -- put their own pressure on the Board of Regents.

Late last week, the Regents turned down Pastor Hague's application, though they've left the door open to reconsidering it early next year.

It is this kind of petty politics and this level of servitude to union bosses that has left the Democratic Party utterly useless at the local level. How long, exactly, do Democrats think that their party can fight all innovation and all competition in towns and cities around America before they begin alienating a large portion of their black and Hispanic base? It is these children, after all, who suffer the most from Democratic subservience.

John Kerry, ever so briefly, acknowledged his party's growing problem on education early in the presidential race when he started talking about reform of teacher tenure, which makes it impossible for schools around the country to hire, fire and promote teachers based on merit (as would benefit children) as opposed to years worked in the system (the unions' favored measure). Kerry talked about giving teachers higher pay in return for giving principals and school administrators more flexibility. But the unions told him where he could stick it -- and he must have complied, because the idea was never heard of again.

Now, the Democrats will have time to consider where they can make inroads with the American electorate and where they need to play defense. I've already detailed how the Democrats could use support for school vouchers to make inroads. But as groups of parents and community leaders around the country try to set up charter schools, and local Democratic establishments try to thwart them, they also have to worry about the votes they're likely losing, out in places like the Niagara tundra.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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