Responsibility of Education

by Mike at the Big Stick

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”?

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20 thoughts on “Responsibility of Education

  1. Interesting and it makes sense. A thought though… if we did take steps to integrate schools across classes through vouchers for instance wouldn’t the upper class eschelons simply pay a little more to deintegrate their little darlings from the children of the peasants?

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      • @Mike at The Big Stick, I suspect that what makes private schools even more special than that is the right to turn folks away.

        If a kid from the wrong side of the tracks is bright, wants to learn, and obeys authority, any given private school would fall over backwards to have him/her as a student. They will push for scholarships and grants and have bake sales.

        No number of vouchers would help the kid if s/he had a record… even if they were from the right side of the tracks.

        The right of refusal is what makes many private schools work… that and the sacrifice required on the part of the parents in the first place to kick the eh-double-dollar-sign of the kid who gets in.

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          • @Mike at The Big Stick,

            “the reason private schools do well is that they’re exclusive”

            The obvious counter point here are religious schools which aren’t exclusive the same way that one might imagine, quite a few of which actually take very troubled youths.

            Also, public schools are pretty exclusive too, except in their case tuition comes in the form of urban growth boundaries, costs of property, costs of commuting, etc…

            I’m actually not convinced that exclusivity is the evil that it’s often maligned to be. I think exclusivity turned specialization can actually be a good thing, the growth and success of visual and performing arts focused schools comes to mind. Here, the result might be less talent in comprehensive high’s fall play, but for the talented the ability to focus and develop it, perhaps away from a glee like social hierarchy (that while over dramatized probably does exist) might be good.

            The trick, is to consider hopes and fears. Quite a few fear that vouchers = subsidies for the rich to go on being plutocratic and exclusive. However it’s not hard to imagine a hippy-environmentalist high school propping up in Seattle or some kind of LGBTQ focused academy in SF or NY, or higher attendance at international schools… While probably likely to self-select among certain social strata the creation of schools focused around a theme or themes that aren’t class-based would likely achieve a greater and more natural degree of class-based integration than busing from cities to suburbs and back again or hoping that vouchers will open Andover and Dalton to the Little Orphan Annie.

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            • @Kyle, We don’t have many ‘private’ schools here in louisville but we have a big Catholic school system. As a former student in that system I will agree that the schools aren’t exclusive in terms of only taking the best and the brightest. My high school actually took great pride (and still does) in its special education program. Part of their mission statement is to never turn away a kid based on intellectual ability.

              Where the exclusivity comes in is obviously with the tuition ($6,000+ year for high school – which is a lot in Louisville). There’s also an exclusivity with discipline. Expectations are high and expulsions are common for problem kids. There’s also an expectation for the way one carries themselves. We were accountable to the school for our actions 24 hours per day. My class lost 75 students between our freshman and sophmore years. Those were the kids that chose the ‘ease’ of public schools. After that we lost maybe another 10 to expulsions.

              The public schools can and do create a sense of exclusivity. The best schools have waiting lists. There are magnet programs, optional programs, etc. We just need a lot more of that.

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  2. Interesting. I’m obviously a proponent of vouchers, but leaving that aside for the moment, I can see something like this at least being a viable way of providing children from lower-income families with a real opportunity to obtain a respectable education.

    One question – under your proposal, do we also bus kids in from the wealthy areas into the poorer areas to achieve some sort of uniform balance?

    A final thought – what are your thoughts about a system wherein districts are made large enough that they guarantee at least a modicum of socioeconomic diversity, with students then assigned randomly to a particular school within the district? Ideally, you’d also have several types of schools within the district as well so that parents could choose the type of school their kid goes to, but not the exact school. By that I mean, imagine a district with 15 elementary schools of 3 different types. Parents would choose the type of school, but their child would be randomly assigned to one of the 5 schools in the district of that type.

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    • @Mark Thompson, I think you’re on the right track Mark. Here in Louisville we use a system of ‘clusters’ for reside schools (reside schools are determined by where you live). Within the cluster there are Area A schools and Area B schools. A are near your house and B are on the other side of town. You must designate 2 from each Area when you apply.

      My wife was just telling me another potential roadblock to busing that they are running into this year (she works for the school system). They are seeing a lot of truancy among kids being bussed at the elementary school age because they are on ‘bus suspensions’. Basically they can’t keep it together for the 90 minute commute and they get kicked off the bus. Their parents don’t have cars so the kids stop coming to school.

      Education policy is full of obstacles…

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  3. These are very sticky issues in terms of policy solutions, and you deserve great credit for offering some whatever anyone thinks of them, but you especially deserve credit for directly taking on the underlying issues that you correctly identify. Kudos.

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  4. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities, which was shocking, even though I’ve had plenty of friends teach at schools without computers, nearly enough books or functional bathrooms. Anyway, my thought is that you’re absolutely right on all of this. Thanks.

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  5. Naturally, I agree with the gist of the post, Mike.

    I’ve long been more a fan of socio-economic integration (as a secondary, osmotic as possible goal) than racial integration.

    With respect to North’s comments, I think the aversion to integration by the parents of the wealthy is somewhat overstated. Opposition to integration, at least from wealthier districts has more to do with the scale, disruption, and fear of drained resources. Which is why the same group of people often oppose joining school districts, busing, etc… I think the element is there but I don’t think it’s as pronounced in the negative argument (I don’t want them in my son/daughter’s school) as the positive argument (I pay good money/taxes for my kid to have X, not to share X).

    Also, I particularly agree with Mike’s point about the public responsibility of education, which is perhaps why I view as a public responsibility of providing education, not a public prerogative to provide public education, whether it educates or not.

    I believe equality of opportunity isn’t a pernicious, expensive, or altogether unfair goal and think the goal is most important and acutely relevant with respect to children.

    That said, I do think that there are negatives. First, integration proposals have never been balanced and the real burden of integrating is often borne by those purportedly receiving the benefit. It’s poor kids who have to get up an hour earlier to take the bus. It’s poor kids who can’t afford the social activities that form an important if informal role in the school community. It’s poor parents who lack the support of the neighborhood, live further, and work longer. It’s poor kids who often have to adapt the mannerisms of the dominant culture (for better and for worse). It’s poor children who are at greater risk for ostracism and social trouble. Finally, it’s poor children whose lack of informal status affects their relationships with staff, particularly for disciplinary and grading issues. In short, they have fewer advocates for them in a new environment that can be – but need not be – hostile to everything that defines them.

    Little Rock 1957 was great for the country…not so great for the educational experience of the Little Rock Nine.

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    • @Kyle, I agree with many of your points Kyle.

      On busing – I agree it puts an undue hardship on the poor. I would prefer most of the burden of bsing be on the kids from better areas. To slightly disagree with you, many of my friends from the upper middle class to upper class income bracket are opposed to busing for safety reasons. They believe their kids will be subject to violence in these schools. I wish I could say their fears are completely un-justified, but violence is certainly a very real component.

      My wife was bussed to a poor school in the 80’s. Her experience was 100% positive. I don’t know that would be the case today.

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