This is the third in a five-part series on things I would do today to be assured of a stronger, freer and more prosperous America 25 years from now. Two weeks ago, we talked about dramatically overhauling the tax code. Last week we talked about seizing upon the historic fact of Barack Obama’s election and his successful marriage to Michelle to re-establish the legitimacy and necessity of fathers.
This week, we’re going to discuss schools.
Of all of the studies and Blue Ribbon Panels and White Papers that have been produced in America in the past 40 years, perhaps none did more damage than the Coleman Report. The Coleman Report was actually titled, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” and it was produced in 1966 by sociologist James S. Coleman and a group of mostly east coast scholars in response to a commission by Congress.
The report ran to some 700 pages and came to the conclusions that a.) school funding and student performance were not as closely linked as many believed; b.) student failure was more likely a product of a dysfunctional or non-functional home life as opposed to a failure of the school system; and c.) that socially disadvantaged black students profited from attending school in classrooms having a sizable percentage of white students.
At the core, the research was probably good, solid scholarship and the conclusions probably substantially correct. But it was the action taken in the wake of the report, particularly in response to the idea that black kids do better in classrooms containing white kids, that did incalculable damage to America’s education system.
And if we don’t fix education, our prospect of having a stronger, freer more prosperous America 25 years from now is in serious doubt.
The Coleman Report gave rise to court-ordered school desegregation. We called it “busing.” All across America, under orders from federal courts, school districts began picking up black students, often at the campuses of the schools in their own neighborhoods, and taking them by bus to predominately white campuses across town.
The neighborhood school, a cornerstone of a system that had done more to bring about widespread literacy and a civil culture than any other in history, began to fall apart. Kids that had always gone to school near their homes were moved across town far from the spheres of influence of their parents. The community that springs up around the common bond of school attendance broke down. In order to meet court-ordered racial mix targets, students were often forced to change schools every year, doing away with the bonds of friendship and trust that develop among a class that shares a journey through graduation.
One of the effects of busing was what Coleman himself would later call, “white flight.” White parents that could afford to do so either moved to schools not affected by a busing order or put their children in private schools. Some of the reason for this, sad to say, was surely racism.
But a much bigger contributor to white flight was the mayhem that broke out on school campuses having a sizable percentage of bused-in students. Across town, far removed from the chastening effect of a nearby parent and the sense of ownership attendant to being in one’s own neighborhood, bused students, many of them resentful, felt free to behave in any way they chose. Since the majority of these students were black, school principals soon learned to fear being branded as racists if they imposed discipline in the same way that they always had on their indigenous students. Chaos ensued.
And parents that could, got the hell out of Dodge.
Since then, we have been trying to fix the problems of a broken public school system with ever more expensive, complex and ultimately ineffectual government intervention.
In order to have a stronger, freer, more prosperous America 25 years from now, we need to decentralize education and return it to our neighborhoods. We need to empower school principals, not education bureaucrats, to develop methods and curricula that meet the educational needs and abilities of the students that live near their schools. We need to give educators the power to enforce discipline and the rule of law on their campuses. They need the ability to get rid of the troublemakers. We need to re-establish the connections between parents and the teachers and principals that see and interact with their children every day.
We need the sense of community that forms around a school that is closely connected to the neighborhood that it serves.
It worked once. And we need it to work again.