Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Wrong Side of the Tracks, Part IV

This is the fourth in a series of posts concerning the ethnic imbalance in our schools. The first of the series can be found here.

As their term ended in June, the US Supreme Court released a number of decisions. If you have been listening to the news of the past couple of weeks, you know that an unusual number of those decisions were 5-4, very much along philosophical lines. There has been much concern expressed in the mainstream media that this particular Court is embarking on an effort to reverse many cases which define the liberal position in America. One of those was the Brown vs Board of Education decision which ordered the desegregation of public schools in America.

This year, the case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 was brought before the Supreme Court, and in one of those 5-4 votes, the Court decided that discrimination on the basis of race, even when intention is to promote racial balance, is inappropriate. Since this decision was announced, every single news report I've seen or heard has said that this decision reversed Brown.

I'm not a lawyer, so I won't pretend to say whether this is true or not. But as I have found to be the case so many times, you have to dig past what the press and the politicians are saying and get to the unadulterated facts if you want the truth. It's not hard at all to get on the website for the US Supreme Court and read the text of their decisions. Here is the opinion for this case.

If you have read the rest of this series, you know that I believe that Hilliard Schools are becoming increasingly segregated, and that there is more to it than just the luck of the draw based on where your home is located. So in listening to what the mainstream media was saying about this case, I thought that those who support this resegregation had won the day.

But Justice Kennedy said something interesting in his concurring opinion:
School authorities concerned that their student bodies' racial composition interfere with offering an equal education opportunity to all are free to devise race-conscious measures to address the problem in a general way and without treating each student in different fashion based solely on a systematic, individual typing by race. Such measures may include the strategic site selection of new schools, drawing attendance zones with general recognition of neighborhood demographics, allocating resources for special programs, recruiting students and facilty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance and other statistics by race.

Therefore, as I read it from a layman's perspective, the option remains open to adjust attendance boundaries as long as there is no intent to target individuals.

I understand how difficult it is to change attendance zone for our schools, having served on the Redistricting Committee this last time around. But I also heard enough folks on that Committee use language such as "those people" and "they live there because they want to" to know that racism and elitism exists in our community.

The education we give our kids isn't just what they learn from their teachers in the classrooms, it's also those things they see us parents do and say as members of a community.

The battle to end discrimination in America is NOT over. If anything, we're regressing as new waves of immigrants pour in.


  1. I read your latest post "Wrong Side of the Tracks, Part IV" and consider myself a moderate-conservative, but am also concerned by the potential implications down the road by the interpretation of the most recent court decision.

    You wrote...
    But I also heard enough folks on that Committee use language such as "those people" and "they live there because they want to" to know that racism and elitism exists in our community.

    The education we give our kids isn't just what they learn from their teachers in the classrooms, it's also those things they see us parents do and say as members of a community.
    --End of your text

    I really agree with that. I've had some recent interactions (that I detailed in an e-mail to you) that really underscore what you're saying here.

    Anyhow, I'm curious as to how you feel about the MS/HS redistricting at this point. Your earlier posts had indicated that you thought the MS/HS seemed to be successful. Do you feel that although the MS/HS redistricting went OK, that the elementary school redistricting was less than a success *or* are you having second thoughts about the entire plan now?

  2. Without the benefit of access to data of the same resolution the school board and administrators have available to them (ethnicity by address), it looks like the MS/HS balance might generally be okay, although Davidson is likely to have fewer kids of color than Darby or Bradley.

    The elementary schools will be much less balanced, but the school board seemed to place the neighborhood school criterion higher in priority than racial balance across schools. I think we'll need to keep an eye on this. I'd worry about a 'separate but equal' situation developing, but then it might actually be a good approach for helping ESL kids get up to speed with their age contemporaries. Columbus Public Schools uses a 'welcome' or 'gateway' school approach for this reason.

    Nor do I have any information which says whether American-born kids are negatively impacted by being in classes where they are in a minority relative to ESL kids. This is certainly one of the things parents complained about during the redistricting process. The Columbus Public approach, as I understand it, was that the the gateway schools have no English-proficient kids in them - only ESL kids.

    I think that there is no single right answer to this stuff. You have to make a decision, monitor results, and make adjustments. We just can't allow racism or elitism to play a part.


  3. Like it or not, the effectiveness of a school depends on the quality of the parents rather than the quality of the teachers. This most people want their kids to go to schools in which the other parents are perceived as most responsible. Any concerns about diversity in the student body are dwarfed by concerns about getting the kid a good education. That's what schools are for - not social engineering experiments.

    Teachers have little control these days due to administrators, fear of lawsuits, and parents' unwillingness to back them. Meanwhile the teacher's union ensures mediocrity in the public schools as surely as the UAW in the '70s ensured American automobile mediocrity.

  4. Joe:

    Thanks for commenting.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "quality of the parents." There are rich folks who are horrible parents, and poor folks who are role models for all of us. In some ways, wealth bigotry is much worse than racial discrimination because it is almost feels like its okay. The American ethos is based on being rewarded economically for the value one brings to our society, after all. More value, more wealth. And what's the use of being wealthy if you can't use that wealth to get what you want?

    But a line is crossed when that wealth is used to deny others their shot at the American dream. 'Separate but equal' doesn't get it because it institutionalizes the notion of restricted social mobility.

    You also say that the schools are no place for social engineering. I agree. I think any family should be free to send their kids to any school they want, without restriction based on place of residence, which is the way we discriminate these days.

    One of the most vocal groups in the Hilliard redistricting process were those of affluent neioghborhoods who wanted to be sure the boundaries were drawn to keep their kids in Davidson and the minority/immigrant kids in Darby and Bradley. That too is social engineering, of the more sinister kind.

    Like you, I am not a fan of the teachers' unions. A key to America's vitality, and democracy in general, is having a population of individuals who are capable of fending for themselves in the economic battle. We each need to be a little bit producer, and a little bit the savvy street merchant.

    I recently had a conversation with a teacher who told me she needed the union because she wasn't savvy enough to negotiate on her own behalf. What a shame. Seems to me that there are lots of teachers in private schools that take on that challenge. In fact, my daughter, who teaches in a Catholic school system in the northern part of the state, was recently involved in renegotiating her own deal when she was given an expanded assignment. She's 25 years old and handled it just fine on her own, walking away with more than she was initially offered.

    Teachers and administrators don't have to think about their community as their customers because they have a government sanctioned monopoly on tax-funded educational services. Neither want vouchers because it breaks the monopoly and makes them compete for customers (students).

    I think a society starts to decay when a significant fraction of its population comes to feel entitled to a job rather than having to compete for it. They perceive their employers as their competition, rather than the guy from Mexico or India who is willing to do the same job for less. They abdicate their economic power to union leaders, and in doing so, also yield their political power. The result is a class of politicians who respond only to their corporate and labor union masters.


  5. PL, I agree with most of your response but there is a correlation between poverty and bad behaviors like drug addiction and poor self-discipline. (Ask any social worker.) It's just a fact of life. Many parents flee the inner city not because they are wealth bigots but because they don't want negative influences on their children.

    That's not to say that there aren't bad upper middle class parents and good poor parents - there are certainly heeps of both. But the general trend is what I was talking about.

    I agree that it is social engineering to draw *odd* school boundaries to keep out the poor in your neighborhood -- I'm also not a fan of gerrymandered congressional districts. But the question is what is an *odd* school boundary. I haven't seen what the wealthier parents are proposing so I can't comment.

    I'm in favor of school vouchers as an escape hatch for poor stuck in bad schools.

  6. Joe:

    So what does that mean in a community like Hilliard? That we should turn a blind eye to the fact that if attendance boundaries are set purely by geography, we end up with most of the rich white kids at Davidson and most of the poor kids of color in Darby and Bradley?

    This is exactly what some folks in our community wants, and they campaigned mightily for it during the redistricting process.


  7. Looking at the attendance zones, it looks like Davidson/Weaver will have more students from upscale neighborhoods than either Darby/Heritage or Bradley/Memorial. Bradley/Memorial will definitely have some students from upscale neighborhoods, but is also likely to have a larger share of ELL students than either Davidson/Weaver or Darby/Heritage, since most of the apartments along Roberts and Hilliard-Rome will be at Bradley/Memorial. Darby/Heritage looks like it will have the lowest percentage of students from truly upscale neighborhoods. Much of its student population seems to come from a range of middle class neighborhoods (lower to upper). Even Davidson/Weaver will have some immigrant and/or low-income students, mostly from the troubled Avery Estates neighborhood.

    The balance seems to be generally OK here. Could it be better? Yes. However, the balance is likely to better than at Dublin or South-Western. The balance could have been much worse. Some maps which didn't make it to the final cut seemed specifically drawn by a desire to consolidate upper-middle class and affluent neighborhoods, even more than using the natural geography. I think this is what you meant by 'social engineering of a more sinister kind'. Correct?

  8. That's right.

    It could have indeed come out much worse. As I've commented in another post, I think the redistricting outcome looks reasonable, but the actual demographics will need to be reviewed after the Bradley opens and has all four grades populated.

    The Administration and School Board have the authority to make subtle adjustments to attendance boundaries and assignment rules any time they like. For example, they have been doing 'spot redistricting' for a couple of years to address overcrowding in various buildings. The boundaries approved this year may not be the same ones in effect when Bradley opens.


  9. I think this is really a fascinating question and I can see both sides of it.

    On the one hand, it hardly seems fair to say to a wealthier person -- one who has worked hard, shown the self-discipline to not have children before marriage and to finish school -- that they have to send their children to a school with a lot of kids whose parents had no self-discipline and didn't bother to finish school.

    On the other hand, it's not the kids' fault that they were born in a situation unfavorable to receiving a good education. They have the right to a decent education, and they are less likely to receive it if the school is entirely made up of kids with poor parents.

    I don't know that there's a good answer other than to not draw "creative" school boundaries.

    Taken to the logical extreme, the principle of drawing creative boundaries means we should begin busing Upper Arlington kids to the inner city, since the troubles of of Columbus are far greater than Darby will ever have.

    For what it's worth, I live in the poorest area of Hilliard.

  10. Joe: A key to breaking the cycle of poverty is giving the kids a path out of the environment where drugs and crime are the best alternative. It is said that the best birth control device is an education.

    I'd advocate doing away with school boundaries all together and going to a pure voucher system. Every kid gets a voucher and every voucher pays for 100% of the tuition in any accredited school. To achieve that accreditation, a school would have to agree to accept a voucher as 100% tuition as well. To keep its accreditation, a school would have to employ certified/licensed faculty, and would have to demonstrate its effectiveness by means of standardized testing.

    It would also be okay for a school to raise money outside of the voucher mechanism, to provide facilities and programming above and beyond the accreditation requirements.

    All this sounds radical, but what I'm really advocating is that we use the same approach for funding primary and secondary education as we do college: the money comes from the tuition (via vouchers) of people who have a free choice which school to attend, endowments, and other minor income sources.

    So New Albany can still have its magnificent campus, but it will have to accept any kid who shows up with a voucher and accept that voucher as full payment of tuition.

    For more on this, I invite you to read Food Stamps, posted earlier. Comments are always welcome.


  11. Let me throw this out there, just for the sake of making the discussion a little more interesting.

    There's sometimes a tendency to think that parents who make more money also make 'better' parents. What about situations where both parents have an education but make conscious choices to 'be there' for their kids? For instance, passing on a promotion that would require more time at work (50-60 hours a week), so that time can be spent with the family. Or how about this... Parents who make a decision to have one person stay at home to rear children through their preschool years. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against working hard to get ahead or two-parent working families. I am, however, saying that you can read too much into higher income = 'better' parents.

    I'd say that most middle-class families (that I know) have just as high a value for education as affluent families. Again, it comes down to specific values (regardless of income). Middle-class families like ours just don't have the financial resources to put everyone through expensive private schools and colleges.

  12. I couldn't agree more. The thing is that the more affluent a family is, the more choices they have. The most wealthy can choose private or public schools, to have a stay-at-home parent or not, etc. In the middle, options are more limited and the sacrifices greater, but there are still options.

    On the poverty end of things, the head of household is more likely to be the mother, and the father absent. Mom might work a job or two, or sit around and collect welfare. The kids might be getting raised by grandma (who is only 30-40 years old herself), or they might just be on their own. The most powerful role models are athletes and drug dealers. The probability of a young urban black male being incarcerated prior to age 25 is very high, I've seen numbers approaching 50% in some cities. The education option is to go to an inner city public school, or skip out of school altogether. An acquaintance of mine teaches in the south side of Columbus, and has told me about the 'fall roundup' when teachers go out and try to find the 50% of the kids that don't bother showing up for first days of class.

    Some will say this sounds like bigotry, but those who actually work in the communities of poverty know it is true, and are trying to figure out how to deal with this well-established situation. One of the most recognized voices on this matter is Bill Cosby.

    We can't keep running from poverty and economic discrimination because the consequence is an ever larger poverty class that has to be supported and policed.

    So let's do what Americans do best -- allow individual choices about what is best for us. Make the whole public school system one big voucher system and let the kids pick their schools.