School’s out

“I think we can do it,” said newly elected Wake County School Board member John Tedesco of the plan for a neighborhood system, “in a way that will limit the impact on the schools.” While “I think” may be appropriate to the outcome of say, a basketball game, when used as a predictor of a massive readjustment of public policy in times of scare dollars, this sort of wishful thinking (for that is what it is) constitutes hallucinatory neglect. As regards education, when not only is there a surfeit of cite-able data to support “I think” but that such data as exists strongly indicates an almost certain opposite potential. The community has just cause to be concerned. Yet this is the factual history of every school system which been estranged and/or retrenched from a plurality of racial/economic classes, something that North Carolina has tried to embrace from her earliest revolution in “common education,” launched here in the mid 19th century.

The pesky facts were recently stated in a talk given recently by Jack Bolger, the dean of UNC law, “Common Schooling in the 21st Century: What Future for American Education,” at the 20th Festival of Legal Learning, sponsored by UNC Law. During his lecture Bolger raised the experiences of two systems, Hartford, Connecticut and Charlotte/Mecklenburg, both of which indicate by numerical scores just how unsupportable the entire theses of “neighborhood school” proponents are. In the case of Hartford’s 22 districts, not just never operated under Separate but Equal, i.e. legal segregation, but in a state celebrated for its progressive, moneyed status, near the homes of some of the most advanced educators in the nation, at Yale and Harvard, the attendant failures wrought by de-facto segregation are there for the world to witness.

Bolger illustrated the effects, supported with figures: In 2 suburban Hartford districts, 9 percent of forth grade students fell below remedial standards, whereas in the mostly minority Hartford systems, the numbers climbed to 70 percent, disparities not attributable to failures wrought by Jim Crow South. No attempts to remedy the failures made a measurable difference, not a minority, Puerto Rican superintendent, nor the august talents of two of the best education universities, nor huge sums of money “thrown over the wall.”

In the case of Charlotte/Mecklenburg, educators had the unfortunate opportunity to witness first hand the results upon a shift from a magnet system to a of adaptation of the neo-segregation northern model, scholastic re-segregation guaranteed owing to the resistance of the US to true integration, aided by real estate practices such as “red-lining.” Charlotte/Mecklenburg’s numbers display an immediate, breathtaking “collapse” in academic performance along racial/class lines, there to see for anyone with an concern and an interest. Across the nation, case after case illustrate the same effect with no data supporting de-facto segregation as a benefit to the society at large, an unfortunate truth further backed up substantially in Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools In Raleigh, a landmark multi-year study of Syracuse, NY and Raleigh that gives clarity and substance to the matter. There is true irony in that Grant’s work was published the same year as the political sea change, tragedy in that his work received less press than it did. Anyone with an interest in public schooling, no matter which side, owes it to themselves to familiarize themselves with the facts presented in both these documents.

What is it all about? What are the true reasons residing behind changes nearly guaranteeing the impending collapse of a nationally recognized system? If the demands stem simply from the inconvenience or a dilettante’s shallow understanding of “freedom” as regards bussing, a response could be that one’s insistence on “freedom” at the expense of the bulk of a society is indication of either an ideologue or some species of sociopath. One of the burdens of being, by choice, part of society is agreeing to the common good. On a practical level the national recognition Raleigh consistently garners, reflected in her robust real estate market for example, may look very different upon a sudden collapse of quality education and attendant reduction in the capability of her work force. Then there are the nearly certain elevations of some statistics that could attend the reduced opportunities of students of failing schools, from crime to the need for public assistance.

A truer illustration of the actual feelings of the new majority may be read in Debra Goldman’s recent statement. “I know I can be invested in the schools because they’ll still be my schools a few years from now.” Not “our” schools, but “my schools,” a hint of what sort pf proprietary inclinations reside behind the new majority’s public spin. Raleigh must do better than “I think.”

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