I have written a lot about the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, an innovative group of public charter schools that have raised test scores spectacularly for low-income middle schoolers. The first KIPP school in Houston in 1994 increased its fifth graders' passing rate on the Texas state test from 50 percent to 98 percent in just one year. Its sister school in the Bronx, begun the next year, also became the highest performing middle school in its area.

On Oct. 21, KIPP announced that the three schools it established in 2001 (a second Houston school plus one in rural Gaston, N.C., and one in Washington, D.C.) also raised achievement significantly in their first year. In my story [LINK to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57170-2002Oct20.html] on that event, I noted that KIPP's rapid growth--it plans to have a total of 34 schools by next year--and its strong academic performance have made it one of the best known national models for educating disadvantaged children.

All apparent successes, particularly in education, deserve a closer look, and I hope to write more about KIPP and its two creators, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who developed the program only two years after they arrived in Houston as fresh-out-of-college recruits to the Teach For America program. But I need help asking the right questions, and am particularly interested in the views of educators and thinkers who question the whole notion of judging schools by their test scores.

So I have invited William Cala, superintendent of the Fairport (N.Y.) schools, to join me in an online debate about KIPP, which you see below. Cala, 53, a former Spanish teacher with a long record as an innovative administrator, is unlike most superintendents I have encountered. He has opinions outside the mainstream which he expresses well and often. He surfs the Internet with skill and energy. And he is not afraid of journalists.

He is also one of the leading advocates of an end to the movement to raise school standards through regular standardized testing. This is the movement that inspired the new "No Child Left Behind" law and brought strong support for KIPP from the Bush administration and several leading Democrats. Cala says there are better ways to assess students than through standardized tests. He has suggested many alternatives, including the National Coalition Diploma, a program he conceived that offers multiple pathways to success for children of different abilities and intelligences.

It's my column, so I get to start:

MATHEWS: Bill, you say you don't think KIPP is worthy of support because its success is the predictable result of longer school days, a longer school year, some outside financial support and contractual commitments that students and their parents make to the schools' academic goals. You say that instead of pouring money into these small charter schools, which don't help that many students, we should overhaul and greatly increase funding for all public schools. But is that politically feasible? Isn't it more likely that voters will agree to pay to fix our schools if KIPP spreads and shows what can be done when more time and more money are used productively?

CALA: Jay, if you believe that politicians have the will to significantly increase funding (higher funding = higher taxes) for public schools based on the unaudited test scores of KIPP schools or any other charter, then I suggest you start preening the wings on your pet pig and prepare it for flight. We have a long, embarrassing history of failure to fund schools in the poorest cities of this country. There are currently no fewer than 15 lawsuits nationwide, painfully working their way through the courts, fighting the failure of legislators to adequately fund poor city schools. Recently, the Appellate Division overturned a decision by the New York State Supreme Court that held New York's school financing scheme unconstitutional (Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York). The lower court had concluded that many students in poor districts were denied a sound, basic education because the system has a disparate and discriminatory impact on minority students. The Appellate Division disagreed and redefined the meaning of a "sound, basic education" as the skills provided to students between 8th and 9th grade!

The legislative and judicial branches share equal responsibility. Going back as far as the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Rodriguez case of 1973, in a 5-4 decision, it overturned the lower court's decision that education was a "fundamental right." Neither KIPP nor any other charter scheme will invoke courts or legislators to offer the public the opportunity to pay the freight. KIPP has been parading its drill-to-death test score prowess for the past eight years. Based on the theory you posit, we should have seen increases in funding for poor city schools predicated on KIPP's "successes." Instead, this past year, numerous schools serving the poor across the country have reduced the number of school days for children as a result of prolific reductions in funding.

When it comes to legislative priorities, educating the poor has not been one. It simply costs too much. It's so much easier to pretend to care about the disadvantaged by supporting KIPP and other charters that siphon dwindling funds from crumbling, ill-funded, and devastated city schools. Raise the Bar? No Child Left Behind? Close the Achievement Gap? I don't think so. When money talks, ideals and conscience walk!

MATHEWS: As you say, KIPP has been around for eight years, but most of that time in pretty much total obscurity. Feinberg and Levin started their first school, just a fifth grade at the beginning, in 1994. Levin moved to New York to start the second school in 1995. But not much happened in terms of growth after than until Doris and Don Fisher, the founders of the GAP, decided to back an expansion of KIPP throughout the country, and that only began last year.

You are a VERY well-informed educator, and you told me you didn't have significant knowledge of KIPP when we started talking about the program two weeks ago. Of course, being you, you have since collected a file-drawer full of useful information and statistics. You are scoring points in this debate. But if Bill Cala didn't know much about KIPP until this year, then I think we have to assume that 99 percent of American educators and policy makers knew absolutely nothing about the program, and still don't know much. Whether the program can have an impact on funding remains to be seen, but we haven't even started that experiment yet.

Now there are 15 KIPP schools scattered throughout the country. Next year there will be 34. And until you actually visit one of the schools, I think you should hold back on your "drill-to-the-death" assumptions. I have spent a lot of time in the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, and looked in on the Gaston KIPP Academy as it was getting it ready. The KIPP lessons include history simulations, good discussions of literature and very exciting and involving math games. I think you would be very pleased with the way the kids are taught. The only thing that would bother you, I think, is their use of standardized tests to measure their progress.

And the principals and teachers say they don't actually need those measures to assess how their kids are doing. They do it the old-fashioned way, constant feedback. But they say it is worthwhile to keep the standardized test boxscore to authenticate their gains and to encourage other schools to try it their way.

You are absolutely right about our failure to find much more money for schools, but that is a failure that goes back to a time long before the standards movement and the new crop of state tests. I think the spread of successful schools like KIPP might make a difference, and give the debate something it has not had before, solid evidence of the effectiveness of more money, when used the right way.

But maybe I am wrong. So tell me what YOU think will get us to a point where schools will be adequately funded. You are an accomplished school administrator. You know how the world works. So tell us how we can get there with the tools we have at hand.

CALA: KIPP may have been in "obscurity" to many public educators, but I can assure you this is not the case with policy makers. Legislators and the deep pockets of big business foundations are the very first to know. In fact, these same legislators often approve charter schools in their respective states. Two of the most influential policy makers in the educational arena are George W. Bush and Rod Paige. They have been aware of KIPP from its genesis. So where's the money for our public schools?

I do find your criticism of my "drill-to-death" and test score characterizations curious if not fascinating for at least two reasons. First Jay, we all know your deep devotion and yes, love for test scores. (Can you say, Challenge Index?) We also know the old adage that "love is blind." In this case, Jay, you are enamored with the glitz of a purported high test score and blinded to the damage that is left behind at the local public school where teachers don't have company-provided cell phones, corporate funding, or kids with parents who sign performance contracts. Your informative column (October 21, 2002), Test Scores Are Up at KIPP Schools would be more aptly titled "Ode to a Number 2 Pencil." Yet, you seem to come around in this debate and realize that good instruction is not test preparation. Remember, it was I who several weeks ago declared that you may be having an epiphany. Second, in spite of what you observed in D.C. during your visit(s), both KIPP Houston and KIPP in the Bronx are run in a very militaristic fashion. I can assure you that I am not alone in my concern over KIPP Houston students' "drills" at the Republican convention.

I really wish you were right to believe that the example of KIPP's money might make a difference in swaying those in power to adequately fund public schools. It won't. Why? The new standards and new tests have told us nothing that we haven't known for decades from the "old" tests. Poor kids, from devastated neighborhoods and non-existent support systems perform poorly on tests. KIPP provides no revelation to anyone. Decades of research tell us without equivocation: Money does make a difference.

You ask how I think we will get schools adequately funded with the tools at hand. I am honored that you believe that I can divine a solution that has avoided resolution for the past 100 years, however, I am convinced that the power our democracy provides us is the only answer. Schools will be better funded when journalists unceasingly hold politicians accountable with the pen, when more school board members like Mickey Vanderwerker of Virginia refuse to accept inequality for any child, when more mothers like Juanita Doyon of Washington State stand on street corners handing out buttons protesting abuse through inequality, when fearless parents like Carol Holst of Texas use the media to make sure the truth about inequity is on the airwaves. Until we create a "new civil rights movement" as described by Evans Clinchy in The Rights of All Our Children: A Plea for Action, children in our cities will never have public schools that provide for our kids.

Now, let's talk about the problems that nine-hour school days and parent contracts spawn.

MATHEWS: Bill, I love your honesty, and your willingness to stick your neck out, but I think you may regret, upon reflection, saying KIPP schools are run "in a very militaristic fashion" when you have never been inside one. I have been a reporter for more than a third of a century, and learned long ago NEVER to make absolute statements about places I have never seen.

I am going to invite comment on our debate. Perhaps we can both put our e-mail addresses at the end of this exchange. I will let the many other people who have actually seen KIPP schools respond. I know militarism. A long time ago I was Spec. 4 Mathews, an army draftee sent off to Vietnam. But KIPP doesn't look militaristic to me. My observations of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy remind me of some of the best run inner-city parochial schools I have seen.

And I want to remind you that most of the KIPP techniques were borrowed from first rate public school teachers in Houston and Los Angeles, many of whom are still teaching with great distinction at those schools without anyone accusing them of producing automatons. One of the most celebrated of the teachers who inspired KIPP, Rafe Esquith in Los Angeles, is a bona fide rebel who resists the standard textbooks and teaches his fifth-graders by having them read and perform lots of Shakespeare.

I also think you are wrong to label me Mr. Test Scores, although I can see how you could have gotten that impression. I think we need assessments of schools that everyone--parents, teachers, students, taxpayers---can understand and accept. Test scores seem to be the closest to filling that difficult role at the moment. As you noted, in what you call my epiphany (and maybe it was), I expressed admiration in a recent column for Deborah Meier's method of assessing students by looking at their writings and interviewing them about what they have learned. If such a system could spread, and win the confidence of the taxpayers who pay the bills, I would be all for it.

But you really did me wrong to suggest the Challenge Index, my method of rating high schools, is a test score system. It is the opposite. For those readers who have not been subjected to my frequent references to the index, the index assesses the participation rates of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Most conventional ways of measuring AP and IB success do use test scores. I don't. I take instead the number of tests given each year and divide by the number of seniors graduating from that school. A test that gets the lowest score counts just as much as a test that gets the highest score, because 20 years of watching those programs, and a very large federal study by Clifford Adelman of the U.S. Education Department, have shown that just participating in such courses has a remarkably positive impact on student success in college, whether their AP or IB test scores were high or not.

I share the hopes and dreams of all the fine people you cite. The problem is that we have had, as you say, such hopes for a long time, and schools in our poorest neighborhoods are still not serving their students very well. When I see schools like KIPP that ARE serving their kids--go and see for yourself--I think they are worthy of support, and of closer examination so we can all understand how they did that.

Cala: And, Jay, I admire your tenacity and willingness to hold on to the only threads of a lifeline you have remaining in your argument. Your quantum leap to a Vietnam comparison is hyperbole and melodrama. Furthermore, my statements about KIPP in Houston and the Bronx (I defer KIPP DC: KEY to your visits) are anything but absolute. They are impressions gathered from informed observations by trusted colleagues (one from a school teacher in a "left behind" Bronx school of poverty) and my own view of what I saw at the Republican Convention. I will leave absolute judgments to those who rank schools by gathering information by phone conversations with secretaries during the summer (That would be the Challenge Index again, Jay). Now THAT is the epitome of making statements about places one has NEVER seen.

From our previous jousts, it should be evident that I embrace the basic premise of the Challenge Index, but its methods fail to recognize too many schools of distinction. Your friend James Fallows sparred with you on this issue as well.

From our previous cyber-conversations, I have made it very clear that my major concerns about KIPP are the length of the school day, the contract with parents and the fact that KIPP is siphoning money from the poor of the cities. Your avoidance of these concerns in spite of the seeds I have planted is curious. I discussed our debate with an Advanced Placement English class in my district's high school where I guest teach once a month. A senior in Mr. Gillette's class asked me, "What effects upon normal socialization will there be to students who have to go to school from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, 4 hours on Saturday and one month during the summer?" I don't know that answer, however, that childhood is being bartered away with this "experiment," seems highly probable. This system looks a lot like the educational design that Japan is dismantling because of the harm it has done.

The contract is a great idea for private schools that don't accept public funds to educate ALL children. KIPP is not private and has no business implementing anything that so much as IMPLIES sending a child back to his or her regular public school for failure to perform. This is "creaming" at its best and the destruction of public education at its worst.

And this brings me to my final point of using taxpayer dollars for "experiments" that cannot be replicated. KIPP cannot be replicated on a large scale because all kids will not be able to attend school 12 hours more a week, Saturdays and one month during the summer (and they shouldn't). Nor will the cost to do so EVER be the will of lawmakers. So in the meantime, as public funds are being drained off and transferred to KIPP and other charters, the hopes and dreams of our poorest children left in the cities are being sucked dry as the remaining schools are left in a state of atrophy.

If KIPP practices are what some individuals desire, then they should get what they want, but not at the expense of one more city child left behind. KIPP may be worthy of support for those who see a value in its methods, but that support must come solely from PRIVATE sources. The time is long overdue to stop experimenting with kids and put our efforts into the root cause.{sbquo}.{sbquo}. poverty. Until we address the issue of poverty head-on, we end up with social band-aids on-the-cheap that lead to what Jonathan Kozol aptly describes as the economic apartheid of our cities.

Bill Cala Wcala48@rochester.rr.com and Jay Mathews mathewj@washpost.com welcome responses.