Politics Versus Education

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Of all the cynical frauds of the Obama administration, few are so despicable as sacrificing the education of poor and minority children to the interests of the teachers’ unions.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s attempt to suppress the spread of charter schools in Louisiana was just one of the signs of that cynicism. His nationwide threats of legal action against schools that discipline more black students than he thinks they should are at least as damaging.

Charter schools are hated by teachers’ unions and by much of the educational establishment in general. They seem to be especially hated when they succeed in educating minority children whom the educational establishment says cannot be educated.

Apparently it can be done when you don’t have to hire unionized teachers with iron-clad tenure, and when you don’t have to follow the dogmas in vogue in the educational establishment.

Last year, there was an attempt to shut down the American Indian Model Schools in Oakland, California — schools that had been ranked among the top schools in the nation, schools with the top test scores in their district and the fourth highest scores in the entire state of California.

The reason given was that the former — repeat, FORMER — head of these schools was accused of financial irregularities. Since there are courts of law to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals, why should school children be punished by having their schools shut down, immediately and permanently, before any court even held a trial?

Fortunately, a court order prevented this planned vindictive closing of this highly successful charter school with minority students. But the attempt shows the animus and the cynical disregard of the education of children who have few other places to get a comparable education.

Attorney General Holder’s threats of legal action against schools where minority students are disciplined more often than he wants are a much more sweeping and damaging blow to the education of poor and minority students across the country.

Among the biggest obstacles to educating children in many ghetto schools are disruptive students whose antics, threats and violence can make education virtually impossible.

If only 10 percent of the students are this way, that sacrifices the education of the other 90 percent.

The idea that Eric Holder, or anybody else, can sit in Washington and determine how many disciplinary actions against individual students are warranted or unwarranted in schools across the length and breadth of this country would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

Relying on racial statistics tells you nothing, unless you believe that black male students cannot possibly be more disruptive than Asian female students, or that students in crime-ridden neighborhoods cannot possibly require disciplinary actions more often than children in the most staid, middle-class neighborhoods.

Attorney General Holder is not fool enough to believe either of those things. Why then is he pursuing this numbers game?

The most obvious answer is politics. Anything that promotes a sense of grievance from charges of racial discrimination offers hope of energizing the black vote to turn out to vote for Democrats, which is especially needed when support from other voters is weakening in the wake of Obama administration scandals and fiascoes.

Eric Holder’s other big racial crusade, against requiring identification for voting, is the same political game. And it is carried out with the same cynical promotion of fears, with orchestrated hysteria from other Democrats — as if having to show identification to vote is like a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Blacks, whites and everybody else can be asked for identification these days, whether cashing a check or using a credit card at a local store or going to an airport — or even getting into some political meetings called to protest voter ID laws.

But to sacrifice the education of children, especially children for whom education may be their only ticket out of poverty, is truly a new low. As someone once said to Senator Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Demonizing the Helpers

It is not easy to demonize people who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars of their own money to help educate poor children. But some members of the education establishment are taking a shot at it.

The Walton Family Foundation — created by the people who created Walmart — has given more than $300 million to charter schools, voucher programs and other educational enterprises concerned with the education of poor and minority students across the country.

The Walton Family Foundation gave more than $58 million to the KIPP schools, which have had spectacular success in raising the test scores of children in ghettoes where the other children are far behind in academic performance.

D.C. Prep, in Washington, whose students are mostly poor and black, has also received grants from the Walton Family Foundation. Its test scores likewise exceed those of traditional neighborhood schools, as well as the test scores of other local charter schools. Other wealthy people across the country have been doing similar things for years, including high-tech tycoons like Bill Gates and Michael Dell. It is one of the great untold stories of a unique pattern of philanthropy that makes America truly exceptional.

Yet these philanthropists have been attacked by the teachers’ unions and by others in the education establishment, including academics.

It was painful to watch a well-known historian of education on a TV talk show recently, denouncing people from “Wall Street” who have promoted alternatives to the failing public schools. Apparently, in some circles, you can just say the words “Wall Street” and that proves that something evil is being done.

You can listen in vain for any concrete evidence that these philanthropic efforts to help educate poor children are creating harm.

Instead, you get statements like that from the head of the American Federation of Teachers, saying, “they’re trying to create an alternative system and destabilize what has been the anchor of American democracy.”

If government-monopoly schools, with iron-clad tenure for incompetent teachers, have been an anchor, they have been an anchor around the necks of American students, who consistently score lower on international tests than students from countries that spend half as much money per student, and yet have students who outperform our youngsters, year after year.

It is not written in the stars that youngsters in ghetto schools have to score miles behind everybody else.

Data from the 1940s show test scores in Harlem schools comparable to test scores in white working class schools on New York’s lower east side. (See “Teachers College Record,” Fall 1981, pages 40-41.)

Even today, particular minority schools — sometimes charter schools, sometimes Catholic schools, and sometimes even regular public schools headed by principals who defy the prevailing educational dogmas — turn out black students who can compete with other students academically.

Teachers’ unions and others who defend the public school establishment decry competing schools, on grounds that they are somehow undermining the public schools.

One of the claims is that these alternative schools drain money from the public schools. But expenditures per pupil in the public schools have risen during the era of the spread of alternative schools.

Of course, if there were no alternative schools, the total amount of money going to the public school system might have increased more. But this would not necessarily produce more money per student, since charter schools typically do not get as much money per student as the public schools get.

Then there is the claim that alternative schools “skim the cream” of the students, and that this explains why their test results are better. But many, if not most, charter schools select among their applicants through a lottery.

Lots of things need to be done by lots of people to improve our education system, especially for schools in minority neighborhoods. Demonizing those who are trying to help is not one of them.

Will Dunbar Rise Again?

Dunbar High School in Washington is becoming a controversial issue again — and the controversy that is beginning to develop has implications for American education well beyond the District of Columbia.

There has not been much controversy about Dunbar High School for a long time. Since sometime in the late 1950s, it has been just one more ghetto school with an abysmal academic record — and that has been too common to be controversial.

What is different about the history of Dunbar is that, from its founding in 1870 as the first public high school in the country for black students, until the mid 1950s, it was an outstanding academic success.

As far back as 1899, when tests were given in Washington’s four academic high schools at that time, the black high school scored higher than two of the three white high schools. That was the M Street School that was renamed Dunbar High School in 1916.

Today, more than a hundred years later, it would be considered Utopian to even set such a goal, much less expect it to happen. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that separate schools were inherently unequal, no doubt in ignorance of Dunbar, which was within walking distance of the site of that sweeping pronouncement.

The test results in 1899 were no isolated fluke. Over the next several decades, four-fifths of Dunbar graduates went on to college — far more than for either black or white high school graduates in the country at large during that era.

Most went to inexpensive local colleges but, among those who went on to Ivy League and other elite colleges, a significant number graduated Phi Beta Kappa. At one time, Dunbar graduates could get into Dartmouth or Harvard without having to take an entrance exam.

That was when Dunbar was controversial.

Some in the black community were proud and grateful that there was such a school where any black youngster in the city, no matter how poor, could go to get an education that would equip him or her to go on to college anywhere and compete with anybody.

But others decried Dunbar as an “elitist” school with academic standards that many black youngsters could not meet and a set of attitudes and behavior that some in today’s world would call “acting white.”

Nor was this accidental.

A handbook issued to students entering Dunbar prescribed behavioral standards and values, not just for the school but for life outside as well. Without saying so, those standards and values were an implicit repudiation of the way many poorer and less educated blacks behaved.

It would be hard to exaggerate the hostility, and even bitterness, toward Dunbar by some of those who never went there — and who saw, and resented, the differences in attitudes and behavior between Dunbar students and themselves.

The late William Raspberry once wrote in his Washington Post column that you could turn any social gathering of local blacks into warring camps just by saying the one word “Dunbar.”

What destroyed more than 80 years of academic achievement at Dunbar High School, virtually overnight, was changing it from a selective school, to which black youngsters from anywhere in the city could apply, to a neighborhood school, located in a poor ghetto neighborhood.

Now there is a new controversy brewing as some have suggested that the new Dunbar High School building be made a city-wide selective high school, rather than remain a neighborhood school.

All the talk about elitism, and about abandoning neighborhood youngsters, in order to serve others, has been revived and another poisonous issue now added — race.

Those black spokesmen who see all issues through a racial prism see the proposed change as a way to accommodate whites who want to send their children to a public school that keeps out many ghetto blacks. But the issue of selectivity was controversial even when Dunbar was an all-black school.

With or without racial issues, there is no way to provide a good education for youngsters who want to learn when there are less able and more disruptive kids in the same classes. Are those who came to learn going to be sacrificed until such indefinite time as it takes for us to “solve” the “problems” of those who don’t?

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