Why The Education Debate in This Country is Nonsense
There are two camps in the great education debate in this country. In the one corner is a coalition of liberals, Democrats, teachers, and unions, who typically argue that the problem is a lack of sufficient funding. In the other corner is a coalition of serious education reformers, ideological opponents of the concept of public education, anti-union activists, and Republicans, who argue that the problem is the “quality of schools,” the teachers, the unions, etc.
Both sides are wrong. The entire education debate in this country is proceeding upon totally false premises. Nobody is looking at what is really going on, and until people do, there can be no solution.
Let us start with certain facts:
- Studies have repeatedly shown that the highest determinant of school success is things like the social class of the parents. One international study found that the single factor that correlates most highly with school success is simply the number of books the parents own and keep in the home.
- Both “good” and “bad” public school districts are all unionized. I live in Southern California. Pasadena Unified School District, which is considered to be a “bad” school district, is unionized. San Marino, which is considered to be an “excellent” school district and is next door, is also unionized. La Cañada Unified School District, also next door to Pasadena, and also considered to be an “excellent” school district, is also unionized.
- In 1970, the Pasadena District was hit with a busing ruling by a Federal District Court, which was the first one outside of the South. After this decision, PUSD became heavily minority and poor, and areas with highly educated white parents that are still part of the district have repeatedly tried to secede and join affluent nearby districts. In fact, the above mentioned LCUSD itself seceded from PUSD in 1960 — it was 90% white.
- Since the 1970s, the number of children whose families live in Pasadena (which is unusual in that it BOTH has some of the wealthiest people in the region, and also the poorest — i.e., it is hugely stratified) and who attend private school. In fact, in 2014, Pasadena was named the snobbiest mid-sized city in America largely because it now has the highest per-capita concentration of private schools in the country.
This is an example area. But the pattern has repeated itself all over the country. So what is actually going on here?
Liberals need to acknowledge that while Civil Rights decisions had laudable goals, they had huge negative consequences. One can make the case that Civil Rights busing decisions — by focusing ONLY on particular cities, rather than on regions or states, and by the nature of the fact that they cannot include private schools — essentially destroyed a lot of public education in this country, and certainly destroyed broad public support for it.
Highly educated whites (and later Asians) did not all abandon public schools, or public schools in certain cities, because they were racists, though some were. Many others simply did not want their kids to have to spend an hour or two on a bus every day. Over time, too, whether a district was “good” or “bad” simply became a sort of received wisdom. Chicken-and-egg cycles took hold. In Southern California, all the educated and wealthy people either move to places like San Marino, or they send their kids to private school.
Liberals don’t want to acknowledge this for two reasons: 1) they do not want to view the Civil Rights Era as anything other than an unadulterated good; and 2) saying what I’m saying sounds like one is saying that minorities are stupid. That is not what I’m saying, but the optics are bad. Minorities are not dumber, but in the aggregate, when parents have fewer resources, when they are working three jobs, or when they have no job, or when kids are in foster care, etc., educational outcomes will tend to be worse. Liberals also do not want to acknowledge that throwing more money at the problem will not fix it.
Conservatives have different issues. In their coalition, those who hate unions in general have a great tool for dumping on them. They fail to acknowledge that all of the great destinations public school districts, where property values are high and virtually everyone is highly educated, and either white or Asian, are also unionized. Education reformers have typically bought into what I believe is a canard that the quality of the teachers is the primary determinant of school success. They fail, in my opinion, to acknowledge things like the fact that excessive needs of a student population actually impact negatively the quality of teachers.
I believe that if you took all of the private school teachers in Pasadena, and switched them with all of the teachers at PUSD, the quality of education at PUSD and in the private schools would only change by no more than about 10%.
Many Democrats have also bought into the false idea of what makes schools “good” or “bad.” That is what led them to support No Child Left Behind, which was a law totally based on these false premises of the education debate in this country.
In short, nobody is talking about the fact that the education problems in this country are largely racial and class problems. Nobody wants to talk about it because it’s a hugely upsetting topic. Instead, people talk in terms of abstractions. Liberals talk about money. Conservatives talk about “reform” and vouchers. Vouchers may actually help because they may create a form of stealth desegregation (by class, not just by race) and do so on a basis that is, at least on its surface, non racial.
But we are not going to solve this problem until we begin talking about what the problem actually is.