June 30, 2000
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The city and state of New York have spent $24 million to hire a company to call up poor New Yorkers and urge them to sign up for health insurance plans and primary care physicians. The company has hired persons who speak 18 languages, including, The New York Times reports this morning, Urdu and Haitian Creole. The company has forged alliances with about 50 community groups to help in its task, the Times reports. And it has gotten 81 percent of persons to choose an insurance plan voluntarily, far exceeding the 60 percent guideline in the company's contract, the Times reports. So, naturally, the reaction from the Times is a story stripped across the top of the front of the Metro section amplifying complaints from the hard-left Legal Aid Society that the company has sometimes screwed up. "Company Enrolling Poor in Heath Care Plans Is Criticized," the headline says.
The article doesn't name a single poor person who has gotten bad treatment from the company. It does, however, cite "a 63-year-old Russian-speaking man with diabetes and other medical complications who was repeatedly sent information in English, which he could not understand, had his medical insurance briefly canceled and then was automatically assigned to a doctor's office where no one spoke Russian." It also cites "a 62-year-old Spanish speaking woman with degenerative joint disease" who "had to delay surgery after complications that resulted from her not being able to read forms" that the company "had sent her in English, even though she had requested them in Spanish."
Immigrants to America, and to other countries, for that matter, have always had to surmount language barriers. It seems as though the company that the city and state hired has tried to make reasonable efforts to accommodate these language problems and has been reasonably successful. So why give such prominent attention in the Times to a few horror stories, and why blame the company for an age-old problem, the language difficulties that immigrants face in a new land?
The Answer: The answer to that question is suggested by another item in today's Times, an editorial on "Privatization and Failing Schools." The editorial makes for the Times what is a giant departure from to its preferred big-government stance: It leaves the door open to the idea of hiring private companies to run some failing New York City schools. Don't get too excited, though. The Times isn't exactly leading the way here: the schools chancellor and the head of the state's United Federation of Teachers have already made it clear that they are open to the idea. And catch the Times's caveat: "The evidence suggests that any privatization effort should begin slowly, with just a few schools and with close scrutiny from city and state education officials. Companies that succeed by objective criteria -- using the same resources as the public schools -- should be allowed to continue. Those that fail should not."
This is breathtaking in two ways.
First is the insistence that no additional resources be given to the students in the schools that would be run privately. That would defeat the whole point. The very idea of privatization is to give students more resources. In the case of schools run by non-profits, it's the additional volunteer muscle, money and social capital of a committed group of parents or volunteers or the Catholic Church. Telling the church or the parent volunteers who undertake the responsibility to run a school that they aren't allowed to put any more money or "resources" in than the government puts into its schools is just telling them you want to prevent them from succeeding. God forbid some student gets a little bit better school than another student: It would be horrible, according to the Times's logic -- the newspaper's message is apparently that it's okay if the schools are bad, just as long as they are all equally bad.
The "same resources" argument also would have the effect of stalling the entrance into the market of for-profit education companies. Such companies often subsidize their first few schools in a market as "loss leaders," providing such schools with additional resources from their own private corporate capital in order to build a brand and a record of success. The Times doesn't want to allow this; the "same resources" phrase seems to suggest requiring the private companies to operate their schools using only the same per-student fee that the public schools do. But the public schools have a huge cost advantage related to volume that the for-profit education companies, at least at the outset, won't have. The for-profit companies, for instance, have far fewer students over which to spread the costs of things such as curriculum development. Again, the "same resources" provision is setting up a standard that would prevent privately run schools from succeeding.
The other way that the Times's position is stunning, though, is in its insistence that the newly privatized schools should not be allowed to continue if they fail. Makes sense -- but why doesn't the Times apply the same standard to government-run public schools? The Times may claim it does support shutting down bad individual government-run public schools, but in fact such "shut downs" are pretty much farces: the "shut-down" school often reopens immediately on the same site under the same overall public government control. Here you get a sense of the Times's double standard, holding business and even non-profits to a higher bar of performance than it holds governments to, whether the issue is education or helping poor immigrants get doctors and health insurance.
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