April 25, 2012 | 163 comments
The other obstacle to public school reform.
Teachers unions are widely regarded as the most serious obstacle to the reform of public education, but history suggests a second critical, though less obvious, impediment. It was the muckraker Upton Sinclair who in 1919 conceded — and, as a socialist, with no great pleasure — that the success of any reform movement in the United States depends on the active support of the upper-middle class.
What Sinclair had learned from his own crusade to reform the meatpacking industry was that most social injustices are supported by powerful economic interests. And it is only the upper-middle class that has both economic independence and political clout to agitate for improvement, often shaping needed change to satisfy its own concerns.
A more recent illustration of Sinclair’s thesis was the early environmental movement in the 1960s, which drew membership disproportionately from professionals and college graduates. While the movement is rightly credited with saving the Hudson and Ohio Rivers and reviving the health of the Great Lakes, it also did much to enhance property values in affluent suburbs, university towns, and vacation communities inhabited by its supporters.
Unfortunately for the health of America’s public schools, the upper-middle class suburban parents who could do the most to advance education reform nationally by modeling it in their own communities have for decades been mute on the issue.
Suburban parents have always been ready to mob a school board meeting to agitate for improved athletic facilities, but never for teacher evaluations or merit pay. The PTA will mobilize families and schools to support the most controversial social movements, from gay rights and gun control to affirmative action and costly accommodations for the disabled, but not a peep about the pressing need to save urban children from failing schools.
In places like Marin County north of San Francisco, Fairfax County in Virginia, the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, even very modest reforms that could save taxpayers money while improving the quality of education-giving credit for courses taken at community college or online, for example-are either ignored or downplayed.
If pressed, the parent groups that dominate suburban politics will explain their contentment by claiming that the structure of public education is basically sound. They argue that only two ingredients, adequate tax revenue and parental oversight of the school administration, are needed to make the system work, and affluent suburbs are committed to providing both.
In reality, neither generous budgets or the parental dominance of boards of education contribute much to the academic quality of suburban schools. In March of 2005, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy looked at every school district in Connecticut, comparing per-pupil costs to student scores on state-administered mastery tests. It found that many affluent communities “spend much more than middle-class towns for the same educational outcomes.”
For most of the last 40 years, state courts have experimented with improving failing schools by ordering legislatures to fund poorer districts at affluent suburban levels, but to no avail. As the Supreme Court recently observed in reversing an Arizona school funding case (Horne v. Flores), the “weight of the research” disproves a causal relationship between spending and learning.
And as for the supposed academic benefit of parental oversight, the economic structure of suburban education — which gives families the ability to force neighbors without children in public school to share the tax tab — actually encourages board members to budget irresponsibly.
In states where suburban schools are funded primarily by property levies, for example, a family paying $10,000 in real estate taxes and sending three children to public schools with an average per pupil cost of $9,000 nets a yearly windfall from the community of $17,000 in educational services, a subsidy that is largely treated as what it is — other people’s money.
“The irony is that the huge real estate taxes…actually provide money that is counter-productive within the school system,” observes Margaret McIntyre, a former board of education member in the Illinois suburb of Wilmette. Parents are incented to grant educators excessive compensation and lax work rules-by far the largest cost drivers of local budgets — in return for a wide range of benefits with little relationship to the curriculum.
These include low-cost forms of day care, both before and after school, expensive and eclectic sports programs, holiday “socials,” low-cost summer camps run out of public school buildings, and a variety of school-day distractions for students, such as pottery and ballet lessons, cafeteria pasta bars, and media centers with state-of-the-art video equipment.
High schools in commuter enclaves outside of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and other large cities have as many electives as some small colleges, offering credit for courses in jewelry making, computer animation, and the history of television.
On the other hand, when it comes to teaching the basics of reading, writing, and math, affluent suburban public schools are remarkably dysfunctional. For the small minority of highly motivated students, the system works well enough, but, according to Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker behind the widely praised Waiting for “Superman” documentary, up to 75 percent of graduates need to take at least one remedial course in college.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online