Walter Russell Mead:
Slate columnist Matt Yglesias has harsh criticism for districting in public school systems. In most American cities, children can only attend the schools in their district, which Yglesias argues effectively turns these ostensibly public schools into the “private property of local homeowners.” As he sees it, this is a root cause of much of the inequality between high-performing and low-performing public schools:
In my view, over the long term the question of how linked schools are to particular places is a more important issue than the cliché debate over “charters” vs “traditional” public schools. In a zoning-free Yglesiastopia this might not be such a big deal. But in a real world where real estate markets are defined by location, location, location tying school access to location turns the school system into a form of private property. You can call a facility “public” all you like, but if the only way to gain access to it is to first buy your way into an expensive neighborhood then there’s nothing public about it.
But Yglesias’s “zoning-free” public schools ignore some very real logistical barriers. Theodore Ross at the Atlantic captures them well:
Yglesiastopia must be a place with infinite resources, one in which the good schools are large enough for all, and where no allocation process whatsoever—financial, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or residential—need be implemented. Let students flock to the quality schools and the problems in our educational system will disappear. Hail Yglesiastopia!
There’s something to this argument. Quality schools aren’t just a matter of good facilities and good teachers—although these are certainly important. Parents who are active and engaged in the school community are a key component of any successful school. Moving schools out of local communities and distributing children across the city will make it much more difficult for parents to get engaged and sever the ties schools have with their local community. A smart society realizes the determination of local families to build a good system and capitalizes on it.
Another effect of the Yglesias reform: an acceleration of middle class flight from the cities. Cities have been working like stevedores to convince professional works and higher income people to stay in the city once they’ve gotten married and had kids. One of the most important tools at their disposal: giving parents a reasonable certainty that their kids can go to good public schools. Take that assurance away, and roll out the welcome mat in the burbs. Watch the tax base decline and watch support for public education wither away.
If you want to wreck an American city, put an Yglesian in charge of the schools.
Part of the problem with our public schools is a legacy of Jim Crow segregation. In many southern states there were “white only” and “colored” schools. But it wasn’t just the southern states. One segregated school system was located in Topeka, Kansas, which was a “Union” state during the Civil War. Even California got into the act when the school district in Lemon Grove decided to put all the kids of Mexican heritage in the same school regardless of where they lived.
The U.S. Supreme Court put the kibosh on “de jure” segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). They said that “separate” was inherently “unequal”. But that only dealt with official segregation. When all the black people live in one neighborhood then that neighborhood school will still be the “black” school. That’s what’s called “de facto” segregation.
Then somebody came up with a bright idea – start busing kids back and forth across town so as to achieve racial balance in all the schools. Lots of them smug Yankees who sneered at the southern segregationists weren’t to happy about this new development and “white flight” entered the political lexicon as white libruls took their kids and fled to the suburbs.
When I first started school pretty much everyone went to their local neighborhood school. If you lived between two schools you might have an option, but otherwise you went to the closest one. Almost all the kids walked or rode bikes to school back then, and some kids even went home to eat lunch each day.
In September 1970 busing started in Merced. Even though my hometown had no history of de jure segregation, most of the black and Mexican kids lived on one side of town. The City School district bought a fleet of buses and began transporting 2,900 kids back and forth across town every school day.
It wasn’t just the black kids riding buses. They used census data to determine where where the boundary lines were to be drawn and assigned schools accordingly. You could literally go to a different school than the kids across the street.
They also consolidated two high schools into a single school with one campus, which did wonders for our school sports teams. I graduated in 1978 and we had a graduating class of 822 students. We started with well over 1000. Our football team went to the conference championship three times while I was there and won twice.
From kindergarten though fourth grade I walked to school. From fifth grade through 9th grade I rode a bus. In 10th and 11th grade I walked. In 12th grade I drove.
Did all that busing do any good? That’s hard to say. If you bus kids across town every day they’ll stand in line and ride the bus with the same kids – kids that live in their neighborhood. These are also the kids they see after school and on weekends, holidays and school breaks. So guess who they make friends with.
Then add to that the tendency of kids to self-segregate with their own racial groups and you still have de facto segregation. But now the black kids spend their entire school careers as minorities. When they were at home, all the neighborhood kids were black or Mexican. But when they went to school, most of the kids (and teachers) were white. Could this affect their self-esteem?
I know, I know, we’re not supposed to ask such questions. Busing is good and holy, and anyone who says otherwise is a racist.
Getting back to Matt Yglesias, I am gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his heart is in the right place even if his head is up his ass. He suffers from that all-too-common progressive scourge known as do-gooderism.
I must confess that I used to suffer from the same condition. You see a problem and try to solve it. But your solution either doesn’t solve the problem or it make things worse. So you come up with another solution. Of course these problems are not your own, and you don’t have to deal with the consequences of the solutions. You are meddling in other peoples’ lives.
There is nothing wrong with a little bit of do-gooderism. It becomes a problem when you start trying to control other people for their own good. Then “mission creep” sets in as you start trying to control more aspects of the lives of more people. That’s the road to Vile Progdom.