The hidden news is that most of our U.S. schools are very effective, despite James L. Keen’s assertion (“American education needs competition,” Letters, June 8) that we are losing the competition, falling behind most western industrialized nations.

Here’s the truth. U.S. schools with a poverty rate of 10 percent or less scored ahead all other countries with similar poverty rates in the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) – United States (551), Finland (536), South Korea (539) and The Netherlands (508).

When schools with poverty rates of 10 to 25 percent were compared, U.S. schools still came in third, beaten only by Korea and Finland. Only the U.S. schools with the highest poverty rates (50 percent and above) scored poorly.

Why is it that our schools work so well for those who are well off while failing those who are most vulnerable? Children who live in poverty have the deck stacked against them – inadequate medical, dental and vision care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants, family stress, neighborhood unemployment and crime. In 2008, almost 11,000 students went homeless in Chicago.

There is no argument. Students of poverty need the best teachers possible, but even they cannot overcome the learning roadblocks poverty brings to school. How can the best teacher help a struggling reader when that child is hungry or needs glasses or is afraid?

A 2010 study analyzed 6,041 Chicago homicides between 1994 and 2002 as well as testing data of 1,100 African-American children ages 5 to 17. Students scored significantly lower on reading and vocabulary tests after a homicide in their neighborhood. It didn’t matter whether the students were directly harmed, were witnesses or had just heard about the murder. In all cases their scores plummeted. How does the best teacher combat the debilitating effects of a child’s post-traumatic stress disorder?

Finland, whose education system is often praised, has a poverty rate of 3.4 percent compared with the United States’ 21.7 percent (the highest poverty rate of any western industrialized nation). With an overall tax rate of 49.2 percent of its GDP, Finland offers low-income families generous health care, counseling and housing benefits, recognizing that ill health, family stress and high mobility interfere with learning.

Milwaukee has conducted the largest voucher experiment to date. Recent data revealed that students receiving vouchers to attend private or religious schools performed worse on statewide reading and math tests than their counterparts in public schools.

With nothing to show but failure, this voucher program cost taxpayers about $130 million in 2010. Also, these voucher schools siphon off only the most easily and most inexpensively taught. Recently, it was revealed that only 1.6 percent of voucher students have disabilities, compared with 19.5 percent of Milwaukee Public School students.

Charters also fail to give taxpayers greater value. In a 2009 Stanford University study of charter schools in 16 states, researchers concluded 46 percent produced learning results no different from their local public schools and 37 percent produced significantly worse results; only 17 percent produced results superior to public schools.

Charter schools often operate with little scrutiny. In Texas, there are 500 charter schools but only nine people in charge of oversight. A recent New York Times article highlighted one large charter network, Harmony Schools, which routinely hired insiders to a tune of 80.5 million taxpayer dollars.

In Ohio, legislation is pending that would enable publicly funded charter schools to keep their financial records secret. As a taxpayer, which would you prefer, an elected and voluntary local school board overseeing the finances of your local school district or a network of charter schools, also paid for with your tax dollars, whose finances are overseen by only a paid board of directors hired by the charter network CEO?

Mr. Keen is correct when he says that most parents today do not have the time or the cash to lobby for change in the “education establishment.” But here’s an interesting question. If parents don’t have the money or the time for lobbying, why are numerous legislators across the country joining the charter school bandwagon?

Answer: the charter school movement (read privatization of education) is being quietly funded by millionaire entrepreneurs. In 2008, in Pennsylvania alone, The American Federation of Children and Students First gave over $2 million to candidates and political action committees that were supportive of the charter school movement. In 2009, Bill Gates’ philanthropic organization spent $78 million dollars on education advocacy (i.e. lobbying). Privately run but taxpayer-supported charter schools are a yet-untapped source of profit.

Bottom lines:

If you love your school, your schools’ teachers, your school district and your local control of that district, now is the time to stand up and make your voice heard even if you can’t drop a couple of million on the legislators of your choice.

If you love your country and all the children in it, make your voice heard in ways that help create better communities and supportive schools for low-income children.

Nancy Steineke is a Brookfield resident, a graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School and English teacher at Andrew High School in Tinley Park since 1984.