A recent conversation has led me to do some deep thinking on the issue of school integration, more commonly known as ‘busing’. Let me preface this post by saying that I’m not a fan of race-based integration. There was a time and a place for that and the time has passed.
What I have come to believe though is that from a conservative standpoint I can find no real issue with socio-economic integration efforts. That probably strikes many of my fellow travelers on the Right as confusing, so let me elaborate.
As conservatives we claim to value certain things. Among these are self-determination and the rule of law. In my day job I am often asked to do ‘root cause analysis’ on problems that come up in our business. Critical thinking about the problems of society demands a similar approach.
If we take the average gang-banger, career criminal, welfare mom, drug addict, etc and dig deep, we will often find someone who was neglected at a critical point in their lives, often when they were a child. A void was created and this lead to bad things down the road and by extension, bad things for society. The question is, what role does society have, if any, in filling that void?
My sense as a conservative is that we have a moral obligation as a society to protect children. It should be a First Principle that social policy is built on. An extension of this is that by protecting children we also protect the society they will inherit. To that end, if there are things we can do to fill a critical void in a child’s life, we should make the effort. One area in which we can do that is education.
Democracy Journal ran an article in 2008 called Middle-Class Schools for All by Richard Kahlenberg that radically changed the way I viewed school integration. The statement I found most powerful was this:
Forty years ago, legendary sociologist James Coleman found that, after the socioeconomic status of a child’s family, the biggest predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the school he or she attends. While there are anecdotal stories of high poverty schools that work, University of Wisconsin researcher Douglas Harris found that middle-class schools are 22 times as likely to be consistently high performing as high-poverty schools.
The evidence is fairly clear from study after study that economics is the greatest indicator of a child’s success as a student. Knowing that, I don’t understand how my fellow conservatives can leave children to suffer because their parents don’t make enough money and/or don’t care about their academic future. This strikes me as a type of abandonment. Personally, I cannot accept the premise of, “It’s not my problem.”
The article from Democracy goes on to discuss some things that most casual observers of education already know.
Middle-class schools perform better in part because middle-class students on average receive more support at home and come to school better prepared. But the vastly different educational environments typically found in middle-class and high-poverty schools also have a profound effect on achievement. On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth graders in math, for example, low-income students attending more affluent schools were almost two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income students given a chance to attend more-affluent schools performed more than half a year better, on average, than middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools.
So exposure to students from higher income backgrounds has a profound effect on achievement. Seems logical, but there’s more to the equation.
And it’s not just money that matters; it’s the people in and around a school. Every school community has three sets of actors: children; teachers and administrators; and parents. Middle-class schools tend to provide positive, well-disciplined peer role models, good teachers, and an active parent volunteer community, which benefit all the students in a school.
This is an important key feature of integration. In districts where busing creates more socio-economically integrated schools, parents from middle and upper class incomes become advocates not just for their own children but for their childrens’ low-income classmates. Some will argue that it’s not the parents’ responsibility, but once again, I refuse to accept that premise. It’s also hypocritical in light of other conservative policy proposals. Many of my friends on the Right are fans of vouchers. Our love of the free market tells us that the powers of the consumer will produce the best results.
Fair enough, so let’s look at the logistics of doing so: A mother of a child who attends a low-income school receives a voucher that will enable the child to either go to a private school or a higher-performing public school. Assuming the higher-performing school is in an area of higher income and likewise for the private school, isn’t this in fact government-sponsored socio-economic integration?
How is this any different from busing poor kids from low-income areas to attend classes among middle and upper class students? Either way the parents of the higher class children have no say in who sits next to little Johnny in math class and either way they become defacto educational guardians for those low-income children.
I realize that in an ideal world good parents wouldn’t have to also do the work of lousy or unable parents. We don’t live in that world though. Studies show that middle and upper class students suffer in no measurable way academically by having lower-income students in their midst. To the contrary, some students thrive even more when they are put in roles where they can help their struggling classmates. The old ‘learning through teaching’ concept does work so with no negatives, why the hesitancy?
The thought I would leave with opponents of socio-economic integration is this: Imagine one of your children is beaten and mugged by someone who attended one of these poor and under-performing schools and through neglect went on to a life of crime. As your child lies in the hospital, what will have the greater impact on their psyches, the beating they just took or the occasional discomforts of sitting in a classroom with lower income students? When asked by your child how this could have happened, will the response be, “It wasn’t my responsibility”?