When Both Sides Are Right, Hess v. Emerson Division: Contrary to what the inestimable Robin Lake would declare, there are a few absolutes in life. Birth, death, taxes, and the existence of God are four of them (and yes, dear atheists, you will know He exists when you’re in one of life’s foxholes). But there are also times when two sides can have equally correct points. And this can be seen in one of the inside-the-tent battles for which reformers are renowned: The argument between Fordham Institute’s Adam Emerson and American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess over the former’s scolding of the Zachary, La., school district, which reversed its decision to participate in the expansion of the Bayou State’s voucher program advanced by Gov. Bobby Jindal (and take in a mere 30 students into its classrooms, increasing the enrollment of 5,235 kids by less than one percent).

Emerson took aim at Zachary and the families who successfully lobbied the district’s board to bail out of the plan for wanting to ” to keep their investment exclusive” at the expense of poor and minority kids who, until recently, had no choice but to attend. Emerson also noted that the district also seemed to forget its own past efforts to help kids in need of high-quality education — including 300 children displaced from their home districts within the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Ever playing the contrarian (yes, I wrote it again), Hess took Emerson to task for showing “gooey-minded, self-righteous disrespect” to Zachary’s families and school leaders, who, in Hess’ mind, are only rightfully looking out for their own self-interests. Hess also takes it up a notch (and insults Parent Power groups to boot) by saying that Emerson failed to offer the kind of “ideas and fresh thinking ” considerate for which Fordham is supposed to be known. (Update: Emerson has responded to Hess.)

As anyone who reads Dropout Nation knows by now, I’m no split-the-baby kind of guy. But in this case, both Emerson and Hess have it right.

Emerson is proper and right to scold the district’s leadership and the parents for refusing to open the doors. (Emerson, by the way, also pointed out, as I have, that reformers must constantly advocate in communities in order to gain support on the ground, something Hess fails to note in his critique.) I know Hess likes to think he’s above all that. But moral scolding — and reminding people to live up to their obligations as members of civic society and children of God– is what school reformers (including Hess) are supposed do. Given that the state would have given Zachary the full per-pupil dollars (including the equivalent of the local dollars that would have otherwise been borne by the district)  — and that it had originally agreed to participate in the program in the first place — the excuses given by the district for turning their back on these kids is just inexcusable. More importantly, districts are merely recognized as arms of state governments as defined under those constitutions (as well as by the federal government through the No Child Left Behind Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hunter v. Pittsburgh ruling) and thus have no ability for independent action outside of what state governments decide. Zachary is essentially preventing Louisiana from fulfilling its constitutional mandate to provide all children with a high-quality education.

By giving in to families that opposed allowing kids to transfer into the district, Zachary also allowed them to indulge their own bigotry toward poor and minority children who they likely fear will sully the classrooms of this precious district’s schools. Hess may want to think class (and to a lesser extent, race) don’t play a part in these discussions, but anyone who has spent time on sites such as DC Urban Moms know that there are plenty of middle class folks who express their low expectations view of other people’s children through the comfort that anonymity provides. Certainly school reformers can’t force everyone to think highly of their fellow men and women. But they can, and should, hold all adults accountable for their roles in denying kids opportunities to get the teaching and curricula they deserve.

At the same time, Hess is right in pointing out that reformers need to do more than play the role of moral scolds. This is especially true when one keeps in mind that local property tax dollars still account for, on average, 44 percent of all school funding (and 39 percent  in the case of the Bayou State), and often more in suburban districts. It would make sense for states to replace local property tax funding with state dollars, thus allowing for the expansion of all forms of choice by turning the dollars into vouchers that follow every child to whatever school, public, private or parochial, they so choose. This in turn would stop districts from arguing that reforms will cost them in terms of local tax dollars as their justification. But districts can justify opposition to charters and all choice — as well as perpetuate the myth of local control — because they   are still dependent on local property tax dollars.

Then there is also the reality that these families have, as far as they are concerned, exercised choice by buying a home in a district that is home to what they perceive to be high-quality schools (regardless of evidence to the contrary); from where they sit, poor people who want choice should go ahead and buy themselves homes too. This financial consideration, along with the emotional ties to the school buildings in the community, and the common desire among all for a school for their kids right in the neighborhood, and socioeconomic bigotry, explains why some families want to keep what they think is the good stuff all to themselves. Suburban district leaders have proven skillful at playing upon both the property tax dollars and the emotional concerns of the families that fund them in order to keep charter schools out of their boundaries and stop other school choice measures, even as they show contempt to these families (especially first-generation middle class households from minority backgrounds) in their own day-to-day dealings with them.

What reformers must do is both be the conscience of men and women who should know better (and, for the sake of their own enlightened self-interest, make sure that both other people’s children and their own can get a high-quality education) and offer solutions that lead more people to live up to their moral obligations (as well as expand opportunities for good-to-great teaching). Demanding better from middle-class families is important. But it is also important for reformers to also scold governors and state legislators for allowing situations such as Zachary to happen; this includes demanding full state funding of education (and effectively voucherizing those dollars so that they follow children to any school their families choose).

At the same time, reformers need to offer other ways of advancing reform that go beyond scolding. One way would be to team up with real estate developers to create “educational villages” in which families can send their children to school in the daytime, drop them off for babysitting at a child care center in the afternoon, and take them to the park on weekends. Such a concept would appeal both to households regardless of race or class alike. As I noted four years ago in an American Spectator column, such an idea would not only expand choice, it would also help advance systemic reform.


Integration Isn’t Worth Anything If Kids Can’t Read: Education Sector’s Sarah Rosenberg finds it “worrisome” that school choice — especially charter schools — lead to “increasing self-selection into segregated schools”. Why? From where she sits, this stratification (which is what it is since families make the choice instead of governments) denies kids the “firs opportunity to have significant contact with children from different backgrounds”, and “we risk starting with an achievement gap and ending with a divided nation”.

Forget for a moment all the studies and other evidence that choice — especially charters and private schools — may actually do as good or better job of helping kids become thoughtful citizens than traditional district counterparts — or the fact that reality that traditional district schools have historically been vehicles for forcing kids and families to adopt a Unitarian-tinged civic religion that disavows diversity. The fact of the matter is that Rosenberg sees this stratification and its underlying causes in the wrong way.

For one, Rosenberg fails to realize that there is little diversity or integration of any kind in most traditional districts; this of course, is a function of Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, and the reality that districts only serve geographic areas (which, especially in big cities, tend to also be socioeconomically homogeneous). Nor does she consider the fact that state laws establishing charters (which often restrict the location of charters and even the kind of students they can serve), and the fact that suburban districts don’t charters in their boundaries (and do plenty to keep them out)  play a much larger role than self-selection in determining the homogeneousness of enrollments. Rosenberg also fails to realize that the problems with low-quality education have almost nothing to do with lack of diversity and far more to do with the low quality of the nation’s teaching corps and the practices (shaped by state laws and collective bargaining agreements) that subject poor and minority children to substandard schools; even in socioeconomically diverse schools, ability-tracking and policies that keep black and Latino kids out of college-preparatory courses ensure that education is separate and unequal.

What Rosenberg also doesn’t understand is that black and Latino families have already experienced integration in the form of forced busing and, like Harvard professor (and onetime integration advocate) Charles Ogletree, realize that it is little more than a “false promise,” that led to districts not providing high-quality teaching and curricula in the communities they live; and they have a right to make that point, since, after all, they are taxpayers whose dollars are siphoned off by districts in the form of taxes at the local, state, and federal levels. Like American Indians (which had their own experience with ‘integration’ in the form of boarding schools), black and Latino families feel that integration denied them chances to interact with successful role models who looked like them — and they want their kids to be able to experience this. The racial pride is why historically black colleges and universities remain prominent players in higher education and why charter schools named after civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez are common throughout the sector. For black and Latino children, in particular, who, unlike their white counterparts, are exposed to different races even before they go to school, what may matter more is to know that people who look like them can be just as successful and valuable in society as those of a lighter skin tone.

Ultimately, for these families, the opportunities to send their kids to an all-black or Latino charter school in which kids are getting the preparation they need for success in life is far more important to them that the diversity Rosenberg (and traditionalists of the integrationist mode such as Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg) seek out as some form of school reform. Or, as I declared to Gary Orfield two years ago, black and Latino families don’t care what Rosenberg thinks.