- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004


Edited by David Salisbury and Casey Lartigue Jr.

Cato Institute, $24.95, 342 pages

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and stopped segregated schools cold. Or did it?

Yes, the court ruled: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But the editors of this volume — David Salisbury is head of educational studies at the Cato Institute, and Casey Lartigue is a research executive at the Fight for Children organization — as well as their contributors (whose papers at a 2003 Cato educational conference are reprinted here) see unintended consequences from Brown v. Board.

They say inequality rages on 50 years later. For instance, 45 percent of black and 47 percent of Hispanic students drop out of public high schools (compared with 24 percent of whites).

Only 5 percent of black and 10 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders reach the math proficiency level set by the National AssessmentofEducational Progress (compared with 33 percent of whites).

Say the editors in the preface: “Minority children living in America’s inner cities suffer disproportionately from a failing education system.” They cite a 2003 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, which shows that performance gaps between black and white students aged 13 to 17 have widened in the last decade.

Yes, reading this impressive book I see minority students falling behind in our public schools, but white students do little better. I think that Mr. Lartigue puts his finger on the cause, saying that public education, despite many “reforms,” gets ever bureaucratized — treated as a government monopoly, resistant to change.

He quotes Cato’s executive vice president, David Boaz, who analogizes recent Soviet experience: “Perhaps it is time to learn, as the reformers around Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev came to understand, that bureaucratic monopolies don’t work and that reform won’t fix them. We have run our schools the way the Soviet Union and its client states ran their entire economies, and the results have been just as disillusioning.”

How come? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Contributor Chaim Karczag of the National Council on Teacher Quality, for example, notes perverseconsequences stemmingfromstate teacher-certification standards and from the No Child Left Behind Act mandating a “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom.

I suspect that the long arm of the National Education Association — by far the nation’s largest union — and its colleague union, the American Federation of Teachers, had much to do with this mandate and teacher standards. Among such standards: “Teachers are committed to students and their learning”; “Teachers are members of learning communities.”

Genuine professional standards, says Mr. Karczag, “are all but nonexistent.”

Fuzzy standards repel superior teachers. Mr. Karczag quotes Bill Clinton’s education secretary, Richard Riley, as saying, “Too many potential teaches are turned away because of the cumbersome process that requires them to jump through hoops and lots of them.”

In his essay, Paul E. Peterson (no relation), a professor of government at Harvard, contrasts the Brown v. Board decision with the historic 2002 Supreme Court decision on Cleveland school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

The thing is that Brown is “self-enacting” — every state must abide — while Zelman only “allows” states to pass school-choice laws. But such passage faces stiff opposition, per recent public rejection of voucher referendums in states like Washington, California and Michigan.

Contributor Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls for real education competition: far more “choice schools” — i.e. more charter schools, more school vouchers — to give choice-denyingpublic schools a run for their money.

He sees our urban schools harmed by “bureaucracy, politics, teachers unions, and racial conflict.” (He could have added grade inflation and social promotion.) He concludes, “Unleashing transformative competition will require significantly altering public education.”

I hail Mr. Hess’ call for sharper competition. But his goal of transforming public education is unrealistic. Educrats and teacher unions are too smart for that, and I respectfully direct his attention to the Boaz quotation above.

Roughly it translates to: Public education is an oxymoron — the Blob marches on.

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and contributing editor at the Foundation for Economic Education’s The Freeman magazine.

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