- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2010

By James E. Ryan
Oxford University Press, $29.95 400 pages

Confederate Gen. James Longstreet surveyed the Union soldiers camped along a ridge approached by a long, upward-sloping open field: “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” But he carried out his orders and told Gen. George Pickett to commence his famous charge. The advancing Southern troops marched uphill with little protection from Union fire, navigating a series of sturdy fences that ribbed the field. The lay of the land proved important, and it tragically worked against Pickett’s men, whose bravery could not compensate for their inferior position.

Anyone looking to understand the “lay of the land” in kindergarten-through-12th-grade education should look no further than James Ryan’s outstanding “Five Miles Away, A World Apart.” Mr. Ryan, an education scholar and law professor at the University of Virginia, makes the case that the education landscape is shaped most decisively by one feature: the persistence of the local school district, which is responsible for the school choices that parents make. School district lines are the most important boundaries in education, Mr. Ryan writes, especially when they separate city from suburban schools. Mr. Ryan closely examines how they affect education, focusing in particular on two schools - one suburban, one urban - in his hometown, Richmond.

Parents know the education landscape well - it’s why they pay large premiums to purchase homes in “good” school districts. In rural early America, citizens formed and supported school districts to educate the children of local families. Over time, urban school districts expanded and began serving an ever-growing student population that was diverse in racial and ethnic background, wealth and social class. Wealthier city residents started worrying about the quality of their public schools. Prompted in part by court-ordered integration that often required forced racial busing, they enrolled their children in private schools or decamped en-masse to the suburbs.

What has this meant for education policy? Mr. Ryan notes that for a time, state supreme courts across the country thought they might promote integration by forcing suburban school districts to merge with city districts. However, in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley ruled that suburban schools were not required to merge with their city counterparts.

Unable to tie together the fates of suburban and city schools, policymakers took a different path, one Mr. Ryan concludes has proved “remarkably durable, if not especially effective.” “Urban schools should be helped,” Mr. Ryan writes, “in ways that do not threaten the physical, financial or political independence of suburban schools.” Save the cities, spare the suburbs.

Mr. Ryan laments that by abandoning city schools, middle-class families contributed to the decay of urban public education. He is right. Studies confirm what sociologist James S. Coleman found in his monumental and influential 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity: Aside from his own family, a child’s classmates are most important in influencing the child’s success in school.

Social scientists term this “peer effect,” but most parents think it is common sense. They select suburban schools that will make them part of a community whose norms are middle-class and separate from the dysfunctional behavior of the urban underclass. Mr. Ryan quotes the president of a suburban board of education who puts it well: The “fundamental conflict,” he says, is “between what’s good for everyone and the natural desire of individuals to do the best they can for their own children.”

Looking for a solution, Mr. Ryan turns to “school choice” - voucher programs and charter schools -and it is here that his analysis is most keen and most unconventional. School choice, which lets parents use public money to have their children attend a public or private school of their choosing, is “potentially quite radical.” That’s because the “logic of choice is in tension with the idea of neighborhood schools.” Broad-based choice would overturn the limitations on school districts, allowing city students to attend suburban schools and vice versa.

School choice is often considered a conservative policy prescription because it appears to emphasize competition within an educational marketplace. Mr. Ryan paints a more complicated, and more accurate, picture. “The claim usually made, by opponents and supporters alike, is that vouchers will privatize public education,” he writes. However, “our public system … is already quite private in some important respects.”

It’s private, Mr. Ryan seems to be arguing, because property-zoning ordinances keep home values high in some school districts, making the “purchase” of an education in those districts exclusive and, in that sense, private. By contrast, vouchers would “make private schools more public by tying those schools, and the families who use vouchers to attend them, to the public system.”

For instance, the smattering of existing voucher-eligible private schools frequently must comply with health and safety rules, testing standards and regulations regarding teacher certification and school admission procedures. One can imagine how many more requirements would be added if any state were to adopt a widespread voucher program.

The fact is that statewide voucher initiatives have been rejected wherever they have been put before voters, most recently in Utah, and “teachers’ unions are often identified as the reason why.” Not so fast, Mr. Ryan says. “A closer look at political campaigns for universal voucher programs, however, reveals that they have failed primarily because suburbanites have not supported them.”

Given the vote totals showing widespread suburban disapproval of vouchers, Mr. Ryan finds it “more than a little curious that choice tends mainly to be associated with political conservatives.”

Mr. Ryan’s book is both sweeping and accessible. He wishes for schools that are more integrated by race and class, but well understands that parents, schools and policymakers have legitimate but divergent interests. His call is moderate, for a “combination of neighborhood schools and school choice.”

Local charter schools and city voucher programs can help students by wresting power from education bureaucracies and returning it to parents, teachers and communities. But suburban parents are unlikely to endorse universal school choice because they think it undermines the school decisions they make when selecting their place of residence.

Mr. Ryan points to the suburbs in the same way Gen. Pickett pointed at the Union troops. Years after the battle, when asked why the charge at Gettysburg failed, Pickett replied, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Phil Brand is author of “The Neighbor’s Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans “(October 2010, Capital Research Center).

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