Saturday, August 20, 2005

Brown: A great decision — except for schools















Oliver Brown — the plaintiff in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision — sued a school board, not a public park commission, even though such facilities were also segregated. Within the private sector, discrimination was pervasive.
Yet today, we see marked progress toward racial equality in parks, recreation programs, politics, communications, commerce and industry — but not in schools.
The irony is all the greater, inasmuch as the Supreme Court, in Brown, outlawed only school segregation — on the shaky grounds that such segregation harmed the “hearts and minds” of African American children.
But at a time when the workplace is more often racially mixed than not, Brown’s educational consequences remain ambivalent. On the plus side, most school districts have become as integrated as city demographics allow. But the price paid for this integration has been high — involuntary busing that separated schools from families and communities; large, difficult-to-manage school campuses; white flight; and lowered expectations for students of all social backgrounds.
Worse, the performance of African American students has continued to trail that of whites. Although the gap narrowed in the 1980s, it opened again in the 1990s, a time when the principles of Brown should have been firmly entrenched.
Conventional liberals blame “politicians” for inadequate funding or “society” for its abiding, if now hidden, racism. But money has seldom bought educational progress, and one is hard put to explain the survival of racism in schools when it is on the wane elsewhere.
Conventional conservatives are more apt to “blame the victim,” suggesting that the child-rearing practices of the African American family are the root cause. Yet the disparities in black and white achievement are smallest among preschoolers — the age at which family influences are pronounced and school influence nil.
Closer to the truth are those who blame Hollywood, television and the fashion industry for fostering a drug-infested, anti-learning, “hip-hop” youth culture that burgeoned in the 1990s. But if street culture is the problem, then assigned neighborhood schools are not the solution. Only in rare instances can traditional neighborhood schools suppress the seductions of their immediate environment.
Learning is better fostered when schools draw boundaries that separate classroom life from the street-culture opiates. Because good private schools have discovered this secret, African American students who attend them are much more likely than their public school peers to complete college.
Unfortunately, some still argue against school choice on the grounds that African American families are too ill-informed to pick good schools. But interest, knowledge and commitment will come naturally to all parents, once choice is made available. To claim otherwise is racist in the extreme. School choice is, indeed, the civil rights issue of our time.