Slow Learners
By TNTripp 

58,000 students “crisscross” Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville and environs) on school buses everyday.  The intent is to achieve improved educational results for black children, who are not doing as well as white children, and improved social comity among blacks and whites by mixing the races when they are young.  The theory, to a large extent, is that the first step in helping blacks achieve educational equality with whites in Jefferson County is by sitting them next to one another in class.  A secondary effect for both races is that after completing their education, and as each group enters into adult society, there will be more long-term racial comity for two reasons, viz., white and black children, having gone to school together will get along better as adults, and black children by virtue of their proximity to white kids will get a better education.  Educational parity is thought to be socially valuable.  None of these goals are unreasonable—they just cannot be achieved effectively by the means being employed.

The solutions offered and the goals sought in Kentucky could as easily be resolved at much less cost, with much less disruption and far more effect by, instead of spending millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours sending kids across the county and back (the average child’s bus ride is forty-five minutes), simply giving them and their parents the choice of what school they wish to attend.

Several things happen when school choice is offered:

1.      Parents become intimately involved in making the choice for, or even with, their kids, and they look at the school options, public and private, much more carefully.  They will make detailed and personal assessments of how any given school is educating children.  If the school district makes the choice, parents are not partners, they are subjects.

2.      When parents meaningfully assess school performance, both before and after they choose which school their children will attend, and are free to choose any given school, public, private, charter, magnet, religious, (each year), those schools that under-perform see enrollment go down.  At the same time, the teachers and administrators within those schools where enrollment goes down begin to assess their own ranks, and those who do not measure up begin to have pressure applied to improve, or leave. 

3.      Busing of children is reduced, or even eliminated to a large extent, because the level of performance at all schools is increased, thus parents are allowed to begin to send their children to school closer to home.

4.      Once parents understand they have an opportunity to make a substantial difference in their child’s education, they actually begin to make that difference.  They watch homework assignments for completion, they monitor school attendance, and classroom behavior.  Black parents are no different from parents of any other color—they understand opportunity when it is presented, and they know it will make a real difference in their kid’s lives if they take every advantage of it.

In the Louisville school system as a whole, black kids make up about 1/3 of the students. The politically correct ratio of blacks to whites, according to the Louisville cognoscenti, is supposed to be, at each school, no less than 15% black, no more than 50%.  However, this appears to be nothing but a numbers game, and a smoke screen for what isn’t happening—the education of Louisville’s black student population. 

The question that presents itself, is there more good than harm in this system, appears, unfortunately, to be beside the point.  The primary goal of a scholastic institution is education, not racial integration—education, not social engineering.  If racial integration can be achieved at the same time education is, and it can be if real educational success is in place, then whatever system will bring this about should be the one implemented.  The plain fact is that this can be done by means of the same incentives than run the rest of our individual lives—competition and freedom of choice—and with no increase in cost (actually a reduction in the costs now incurred).

The Louisville school busing program is in court at this time.  The argument is about racial quotas—sending kids to one school or another either wholly or largely based on race—in order to achieve racial ‘balance,’ or ‘diversity,’ or even ‘equity.’  This obviously has less to do with education than racial politics. 

TIME Magazine recently produced a story on the Louisville battles (12/4/2006).  It makes the initial point that when busing was struck down as a viable integration tool in 1991, school districts tended to re-segregate.  TIME goes on to note: “Many school districts have given up trying to break up racial concentrations and instead are working to deal with the achievements gaps that accompany largely segregated schools…” and up to that point they are correct in both their assessment and their seeming approval of this method of attacking the problem of black educational underachievement.  But then they drop the bomb with the rest of the sentence: “—a de facto return to the separate-but-equal idea that Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954) sought to abolish.”  This commentary by TIME is exactly what keeps this political war moving forward.  That the magazine would continue to focus on the failed and discarded goal of segregationists during the century following the U.S. Civil War, which is not the goal of the anti-busing contingent, is simply fuel to the fire of bad policy.  One has to wonder what in the world they were thinking when they added their editorial comment.

People who are opposed to busing to achieve racial balance are focused on the disease, not the symptoms.  The disease of continued black underachievement in society, not just school, cannot be rectified by moving child-pawns across the educational landscape, it can only be improved by making the education itself better.  Who is in any given classroom is far from the magical ingredient the educational administrators claim it is.  This is window-dressing for the real issue, why are black students, a half-century after Brown, still so far behind whites?

The educational system in any school district will improve only when and where there is an incentive to improve.  Incentive is in effect when there are consequences for failure to perform.  When parents can choose the schools their children will attend, then schools will have to compete for students. That is called free-market education.  Free-market economics has, for centuries, produced the magnificent progress human beings have achieved across the globe, and free-market education will produce the same results in American education.  It is just as sure that without competition, schools will not fundamentally change.

We need neither more administrators rearranging the batting order of their last place team, nor a new stadium in which to play.  We do not need more funding to make teacher/players who have no incentive to improve, meaning who pay no penalty for not producing educated children, more comfortable and less inclined to institute any change for any reason.  As long as symptoms are treated, as long as kids are sent 75 minutes on a bus, with a promise that they’ll do better simply because they took the ride, the educational system as a whole will not change.

The TIME story goes on to talk, at length, about ‘diversity’ being valuable—and no doubt it is as an ultimate social goal.  But wouldn’t it be more valuable, if after receiving a good education, black children could become successful participants in our economic system, so they could then choose what neighborhood in which to live—and achieve racial integration economically, which is the only lasting way it will happen?  Diversity is not the goal of an educational system except as a byproduct—education is the goal, and diversity will flow from equal educational achievement, not from sitting a black child next to a white one seven hours a day.

The Louisville “educators” pride themselves in their achievements in diversity and busing—because they can’t have much pride in how they’re doing their primary job.

What is happening in Louisville is the classic mistake of social engineering—looking at a short term solution to a long-term problem, and feeling good for what little has been achieved (black and white students sitting next to one another in class).  Instead, these educators should be looking to a long term solution (black and white kids being independently economically successful and living next to one another by choice) and a resolution of the problem on a permanent basis.  The Louisville program is designed to protect the educators who want no competition that will point up the deficiencies in the program, not its participants.  This is the Big Lie.  In the 1950s the Big Lie was that there was a Communist under every bed, today it is that there is something wrong with the society, not the educational system.  It is the failure of the educational system that keeps the society stuck where it is.

TIME states that the system of mass busing “has maintained not only integrated schools but also community peace,” as though, without busing Louisville will travel back to the days of lunch counter sit-ins and cross-burning.  Shame on these administrators for so misleading black parents while concurrently trying to intimidate their white counterparts.

There is no impediment to community peace in Louisville, certainly none that will be threatened by a better school system that does not involve forced busing.  There is also no threat to peace found in educational choice, whatever form that choice takes—vouchers, tax credits, direct educational transfer payments to parents, school choice.  There is vast gain to be made when the option, and that is all it is, to reform, or remove the grip teacher’s unions and administrators have over educational alternatives, is offered to parents.  Change must be effected from outside, because it hasn’t been achieved from within.

TIME reports that everyone seems happy—attendance at public schools is inching up compared to private school attendance—and the vocal lawyer who opposed busing came in last in a school board election where he promised a return to “neighborhood schools.”  If a return to neighborhood schools would improve educational performance, that candidate would have likely won—for the right reason.  However, a return to neighborhood schools is neither the solution nor even the issue—the issue is education: substance, not form.

Who has the greater incentive to get a good education for children—parents, teachers, administrators, politicians?  The question obviously answers itself.  If parents and kids become partners with the schools every incentive to create a successful system is in place.   

In Louisville the unfortunate proof is in the pudding.  The TIME article notes:

               Thirty years of seating black students next to white ones has failed to close
               the Jefferson County’s achievement gap.  Black high school students still     
               trail their white counterparts by 25% in reading… and 34% in math.  The
               gap is closely linked to factors like parents’ education level and income,
               which no amount of school balancing is likely to fix. 

Need one say more about the managers in Louisville—time not to change the batting order, but the batters.  The school district and its opponents should get out of court and into a new mode of thinking—simply offer within the school system what works in the country as a whole—choice—simple, free, proven, effective—choice. 

The Supreme Court of the United States, which faces the supposedly Solomon-like decision that has to be made (busing for diversity vs. educational excellence by competition) should step out of its robes, as it did in 1954 in the Brown case, and simply order school choice.  Remove the teachers union’s monopoly on bad education and let’s see what happens.  The story says that “…racial integration reduces prejudice and prepares students to enter a diverse workforce.”  Is this a joke?  Who can create a diverse workforce with kids who are 25% deficient in reading and 34% deficient in math?  Exactly how does that reduce racial prejudice?  What diversity are we going to achieve by offering these poorly educated students to employers—who’s going to hire them?  It isn’t about diversity, it is about education.  This clouding of the issue harms everyone, but one group in particular—black students, black parents—and thus black achievement.

With school choice diversity of the student body will be achieved as each child is allowed to attend any school.  Diversity becomes a side benefit, which is what it should be, of school attendance.  Educational excellence will become the main effect—which is what schooling is supposed to be about, isn’t it?  Not social engineering at the expense of the student’s long-term prospects, which is social-engineering that achieves exactly the opposite of what it intends to do.  The goal is to further integrate blacks into the mainstream of economic and social opportunity.  This is not about race, it is about education.  Can’t someone please tell this to the educational monopolists in Louisville?  

This article first appeared in Conservative Battleline and was initially titled Education Choice.

© 1/15/07

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