- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

The recent Supreme Court ruling that school vouchers are constitutional ensured that school choice will remain a high-priority item on the national educational agenda. Yet there are very few books that look at school choice in a fair-minded, objective way; too often books about vouchers are written by friends or foes of the reform, who seek to exaggerate or minimize the effects of vouchers. Anyone interested in school choice ought to place Frederick M. Hess' Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems (Brookings, $18.95, 242 pages) on their reading list.
Mr. Hess, a government professor at the University of Virginia, spent a good deal of time looking at the two major voucher programs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Cleveland, Ohio, as well as the largest private voucher program in San Antonio, Texas.. While somewhat sympathetic to vouchers, Mr. Hess successfully strives to be objective in his analysis. He has dug very deeply into the history of voucher programs, and conducted lengthy interviews with everyone involved. The result is a book that will increase the knowledge of anyone interested in school choice.
Mr. Hess argues that school reform comes in two forms: "bulldozer" reforms that blast away bad old programs to make way for better new ones, and "pickax" policies that slowly chip away on entrenched bureaucracies. He finds that school choice has not, so far, acted as a bulldozer because the programs have been small. However, he finds that school choice has had some positive influence on Milwaukee schools but only after the program was expanded in 1998, eight years after it began. It took nearly that time and several hotly contested school board elections before school choice began to make Milwaukee public schools better.
It's too early to tell how the Supreme Court's pro-voucher decision will affect the school choice movement. But it's clear that there will be more voucher programs and more controversy about whether they help or harm public schools. Mr. Hess' excellent book will make anyone interested in school choice better informed about both the history of vouchers and the changes vouchers have made in our schools.

There are countless proposals about reforming school curricula. But why not go back to the past to the curriculum that shaped schools from ancient times until World War I? Why not make sure that students thoroughly learn Greek and Latin? That's the audacious thesis of Tracy Lee Simmons in Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (ISI Books, $24.95, 255 pages).
Mr. Simmons' curious book will not offer educators any concrete proposals for implementing language programs in our schools. It is instead a book-length essay that is in part a history of how classics were taught and in part an elegy for a style of education unlikely to be revived. Classics, Mr. Simmons reminds us, were taught because they were hard. Students who studied and mastered Latin and Greek, he contends, had strong minds that were easily able to understand other hard subjects. And students who mastered Latin were better able to appreciate how the English language was structured, and thus better able to produce fine prose.
Mr. Simmons is a young man who adopts an old man's voice; for example, we learn that the ancients did not just read poetry, they "partook of the sweetness of poetry." He also elides over the fact that the classical curriculum, even at its strongest, were courses for the elites, not the masses; it is inconceivable that inner-city schools will abandon their curriculum and start reading Thucydides and Julius Caesar.
Still, Mr. Simmons has a point, and it is good to be reminded of the virtues of the past. His book won't change anyone's mind, but does remind us of why an appreciation of Greek and Latin literature is important.

The recent ruling ending forced busing in Prince George's County reminds us that school desegregation decisions have lasted for decades. A useful book on the effects of school busing is A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana by Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas (Vanderbilt University Press, $49.95, 246 pages).
Mr. Bankston, a Tulane University sociologist, and Mr. Caldas, an education professor at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette), examine how schools changed in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette, three of Louisiana's largest cities. In each case, they show, forced busing ensured that white families fled to suburbs, and that inner-city schools became steadily worse as the number of white students fell.
The parents who fled to the suburbs, they believe, did so not because they hated blacks, but because they wanted their children to go to good schools, and inner-city schools, as they became dominated by African-Americans from low-income, single-parent households, increasingly became violent, nasty places where little learning took place. Moreover, the more that judges tried to mandate desegregation by closing neighborhood schools or implementing draconian busing policies, the poorer schools became.
The authors conclude their book with unpersuasive recommendations, including increasing government spending toward struggling two-parent households and raising government aid for minority development programs. But their analysis of how desegregation programs made Louisiana schools worse is levelheaded and persuasive.
Mr. Bankston and Mr. Caldas remind us that massive social engineering programs, such as forced busing, do more harm than good. The legacy of the well-intentioned advocates of massive school desegregation efforts is to ensure that far too many African-American children either get a bad education in a failing public school or drop out and become unemployable.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."



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