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The case against Joe Nocera; how people like me helped ruin the public schools.

How people like me helped ruin the public schools

Joseph Novera, a contributing editor of Newsweek and The Washington Monthly, is at work on a modern history of personal finance.

It's two days before Christmas, and the snow has begun to fall here in the lovely little city of Northampton, Massachusetts. I won't pretend that it's not a beautiful sight. Glancing down from my office window, scarcely a block from the center of town, I see idyllic scenes everywhere, a picture postcard of small-town New England: the snow settling on the roof of the gorgeous, rococo church that anchors downtown; the crowds (such as they are in a place whose population barely exceeds 30,000) of happy Christmas shoppers loaded down with brightly wrapped presents; the cheerful commingling of friends in the parking lot right beneath my office. Just now, my office landlord, a lawyer who also teaches philosophy at Smith College and who works across the hall, came in to wish me a Merry Christmas. He gave me a pocket calendar he has made up every year. He was in wonderful spirits, and so was I. There are days when Northampton feels like nothing so much as a modern-day Grover's Corners, and this is certainly one of those days.

I moved here with my family two and a half years ago to take a job with a magazine. I've since learned a lot about the attractions of small-town life. I live in a place where I never have to lock my car, where a "traffic jam" means having to wait for the light to change twice, where the cost of things is a good 20 percent less than it is in, say, Boston. This past Halloween, a neighboring family held its: annual preTrick-or-Treat party for the kids on the block; there must have been 60 people in the house, and everyone knew each other, and later, when we dispersed to go Trick-or-Treating, no one had to worry about whether there would be razor blades in the apples, That was another one of those times when I thought: This is nice.

And yet, and yet. I mention all this not to inspire jealousy, but to bring up the more complicated matter of personal taste. I don't deny the appeal of this life; indeed, Northampton is filled with transplanted New Yorkers who have embraced it with a vengeance. But the truth is, I've always thought of myself as a city boy. I still do. I grew up in what was then the gritty (and is now the hip) city of Providence, Rhode Island, population 150,000. Since then I've lived in Boston and Washington, Austin, Texas and Paris, France. I enjoy spending time in cities other people abhor, like Houston or Los Angeles. For reasons I can't quite explain, I am drawn to cities, finding them both comfortable and energizing. Northampton, on the other hand, always makes me feel a little edgy, a touch unfulfilled, In particular, the pace of small-tOWD life bothers me. I never feel as if I am at the center of things, the way I do in a city.

So why am I here? It's not the job: I no longer do much work for the magazine that brought me to Northampton, nor is my wife employed in the local economy. And while I can toss off a half-dozen persuasive reasons for living here-how I've made good friends that I don't want to leave behind; how I don't think it's fair to my children to keep moving them from place to place; how I could never afford a similar house in a big city-I know in my heart of hearts that these are only partial explanations. There is another reason, one that looms larger in my mind than any other, one that I always feel a bit ashamed to admit to. I am talking about The Schools.

'Awfully obvious'

The public schools here are quite good-not the best in the region, perhaps (that distinction belongs to nearby Amherst), but good nonetheless, One can argue forever as to why this is so; my own belief is that places like Northampton and Amherst, little cities with populations between 30,000 and 50,000, are the perfect size for good school systems. They are large enough to have the critical mass and money needed for decent facilities, but small enough so that there is very little bureaucratic (or union) rigmarole standing between teachers and students, Also, teachers still have status and respect in a small town-including Yuppified small towns like mine-that they don't have in larger places.

Most important, there is a large group of white middle-class parents deeply involved in the public school system. One of the givens about American public education is that parental involvement-parental vigilance might be a more accurate description-is one of the two or three critical factors that determine whether a school system will be good or bad. Historically, that vigilance is provided by the educated class: predominately white, overwhelmingly middle class people who know how to "fight City Hall" and aren't afraid to do so. Not coincidentally, they are also the people most inclined to vote. Most cities have one PTA-type organization; Northampton has two, one geared towards fundraising activities and another that acts as a tenacious, if ad hoc, inspector general, with the self-styled mission of keeping the school system's feet to the fire.

The result is that when my oldest child was ready to enter kindergarten this past September, I had no qualms about sending her to public school. I now fully expect that she'll stay in the public school system, as will my other children as they grow older. It would be hard to overstate my relief when I first realized that this was going to be possible. For one thing, my wife and I were suddenly spared a daunting financial burden, But since I was also anxious for my children to get a taste of the small-d democratic experience that the public schools provide, it was satisfying to know that their education would not suffer for that experience.

That sense of relief has done something else to me, though: it's planted me here as firmly as any job might have. Perhaps more firmly, since these days parents are more likely to shift jobs than shift their kids into a different, untried school system. A decent public school today is something to be treasured, and if you've found one for your kids, you don't abandon it lightly.

So over the past year or so, as I've daydreamed about moving to a big city, I've gradually come to the conclusion that I just can't do it. Not anytime soon, anyway. And the reason is The Schools. The thought of what it would cost to send my children to a private elementary school is sobering enough. But then when I think about the other option-sending them to public school-I shudder. I can't imagine sending my children to a big city public school system.

Look at them, for God's sake: Boston is a shambles, wrecked by the busing tragedies of the 1970s. In Boston, 40 percent of the kids who enter ninth grade will drop out before graduation. Washington is not much better, a system clogged with bureaucrats, where union grievances generate more passion than any seventh grade history lesson. New York? You can scarcely pick up an edition of the Times without reading about some new outrage: teachers robbed and beaten in their classrooms; an alcoholic principal who is absent more than he is present; a district school board dealing cocaine; a superintendent, Richard Green, who seems in way over his head, and on and on. When the definitive history of the decline and fall of New York is written, the disgrace of the public school system will surely rank high on the list of causes. The destruction of the large public school systems in America is one of the great tragedies of our time. And because schools are so important, the cities, by permitting their destruction, have effectively abandoned people like me.

Or perhaps I'm being too easy on myself. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is people like me who have done the abandoning. Isn't it obvious today that big city public school systems began their decline at precisely the moment when the white middle class began fleeing them? It seems awfully obvious to me. You can talk all you want about the debilitating effects of busing or ill-equipped teachers, but to my mind, the most debilitating factor by far in the disintegration of the public schools was the unwillingness of the white middle class, as a class, to do what they had always done: stand and fight to keep the schools good. I don't mean to sound too self-flagellatory, but I know in my soul that when I decided to stay in Northampton so that my children could go to school here, I was making the same moral choice that hundreds of thousands had before me. I was choosing not to stand and fight too.

Yes, I realize that the decline of the schools is not my fault: the battle was lost long before I ever became a parent, And yes, I know that my motives are relatively pure-I am simply trying to do right by my children. I now think it would be the height of irresponsibility to send my children to a big public school system just so that I can live in the big city. I can even concede that the guilty parties extend well beyond my class: black politicians and school administrators, for instance, who ought to have made the salvation of the public schools their personal crusade but chose instead to look the other way. Still. . .I've chosen to opt out, and there is no getting around that unpleasant little fact. Perhaps this is why I find myself cringing a little whenever the subject of The Schools comes up.

Bennett's missing troops

Almost from its birth 20 years ago, this magazine has argued that the Vietnam war lasted as long as it did because of its "classist" nature. The central thesis, argued in articles by Suzannah Lessard and later by James Fallows, was that because neither the decision-makers in the government nor anyone they? knew had children fighting and dying in Vietnam, they had no personal incentive to bring the war to a halt. The government's generous college-deferment system, steeped as it was in class distinctions, allowed the white middle class to avoid the tragic consequences of the war. And the people who did the fighting and dying in the place of the collegedeferred were those whose voices were least heard in Washington: the poor and the disfranchised.

The fundamental truth of this insight is now so widely accepted that breast-beating sixties memoirists today toss it off routinely as they explain how they were racked with class-induced guilt, even as they went without sleep for a week in order to flunk their physical. (Yeah, sure you were, buddy.) But as someone who had a college deferment, I don't remember that thought crossing my mind until many years later. Nor do I remember it being discussed by anyone I knew in college. Although today it seems self-evident that letting the white middle class avoid the war virtually guaranteed its continuation, it wasn't self-evident at the time. There was simply too much denial going on.

I bring this up because I believe that the decline of the public schools is rooted in the same cause. Just as with the Vietnam war, as soon as the white middle class no longer had a stake in the public schools, the surest pressure on school systems to provide a decent education instantly disappeared. The constituency that most naturally forces change had gone, leaving behind, as with Vietnam, those who tended to be powerless. Sure, there were lawsuits"implementations," and any number of calls for reform-and there were peace talks in Paris in 1972, too-but I'm talking about real pressure, face-to-face pressure, the kind of pressure that scares the people in the line jobs. Once the middle class was gone, no mayor was going to get booted out of office because the schools were bad. No incompetent teacher had to worry about angry parents calling for his or her head "downtown"' No thirdrate educationalist at the local teachers college had to fear having his or her methods criticized by anyone that mattered. One man who might have mattered, William Bennett, the former education secretary, huffed and puffed about all these issues and more. But although his potential constituency, the white middle class, clucked their approval, they-we-still weren't willing to be engaged. We weren't involved anymore; it wasn't our problem. Thus, to those inside the school systems, Bennett was never a real threat. He was a general without an army.

The analogy to the Vietnam war can be extended even to the extent of the denial. It amuses me sometimes to hear people like myself decry the state of the public schools. We bemoan the lack of money, the decaying facilities, the absurd credentialism, the high foolishness of the school boards. We applaud the burgeoning reform movement. And everything we say is deeply, undeniably true. We can see every problem with the schools clearly except one: the fact that our decision to abandon the schools has helped create all the other problems. One small example: In the early 1980s, Massachusetts passed one of those tax cap measures, called Proposition 2-1/2, which has turned out to be-surprise, surprise-a force for genuine evil in the public schools. Would Prop 2-1/2 have passed had the middle class still had a stake in the schools? I wonder. I also wonder whether 20 years from now, in the next round of breast-beating memoirs, the exodus of the white middle class from the public schools will finally be seen for what it was. Individually, every parent's rationale made impeccable sense-"I can't deprive my children of a decent education"-but collectively, it was a deeply destructive act. I wonder about that a lot these days.

The inflamed flock

The main reason the white middle class fled, of course, is race, or more precisely, the complicated admixwre of race and class and good intentions gone awry. The fundamental good intention-which even today, strikes one as both moral and right-was to integrate the public classroom, and in so doing, to equalize the resources available to all school children. In Boston, this was done through enforced busing. In Washington, it was done through a series of judicial edicts that attempted to spread the good teachers and resources throughout the system. In other big city districts, judges weren't involved; school committees, seeing the handwriting on the wall, tried to do it themselves.

However moral the intent, the result almost always was the same. The white middle class left. The historic parental vigilance I mentioned earlier had had a lot to do with creating the two-tiered systems-one in which schools attended by the kids of the white middle class had better teachers, better equipment, better everything than those attended by the kids of the poor. This did not happen because the white middle-class parents were racists, necessarily; it happened because they knew how to manipulate the system and were willing to do so on behalf of their kids. Their neighborhood schools became little havens of decent education, and they didn't much care what happened in the other public schools.

In retrospect, this behavior, though perfectly understandable, was tragically short-sighted. When the judicial fiats made those safe havens untenable, the white middle class quickly discovered what the poor had always known: there weren't enough good teachers, decent equipment, and so forth to go around. For that matter, there weren't even enough good students to go around; along with everything else, middle-class parents had to start worrying about whether their kids were going to be mugged in school.

Faced with the grim fact that their children's education was quickly deteriorating, middle-class parents essentially had two choices: They could stay and pour the energy that had once gone into improving the neighborhood school into improving the entire school system-a frightening task, to be sure. Or they could leave. Invariably, they chose the latter.

And it wasn't just the white middle class that fled. The black middle class, and even the black poor who were especially ambitious for their children, were getting out as fast as they could too, though not to the suburbs. They headed mainly for the parochial schools, which subsequently became integration's great success story, even as the public schools became integration's great failure. Later, apologists for the public schools would point out that parochial schools had a number of inherent advantages-they could toss out troublemakers, for instance. But it is equally true that many of the advantages enjoyed by parochial schools simply had to do with common sense: they cared more about hiring teachers who could read than teachers who had held whatever meaningless credential was necessary to teach reading in the public school system.

As it happens, parochial schools were a much more viable alternative for blacks than whites. For one thing, there simply weren't that many parochial schools left by the late 1970s. (During the 1960s and early 1970s, parochial schools were viewed as doomed institutions, and hundreds were closed by the Catholic Church.) For another, the American Church was adamant about not allowing its schools to become the new safe haven for whites only. To prevent that from happening, Catholic school officials often actively encouraged blacks to enroll, while discouraging whites, a courageous act that inflamed the Church's white flock, who were often blocked from putting their children in the parish school.

The sins of St. Ted

There is no place in America where all this played out as starkly and as sadly as in Boston. I was living there during that city's terrible busing ordeal of the mid-1970s, just finishing up college, when Judge Arthur Garrity's busing plan took effect in 1974. I remember feeling a sense of contempt, of real moral superiority, toward the people who opposed busing, easy enough to do when you're young and single and your mind is uncluttered with worries about the upbringing of your flesh and blood. Those people are racists, I thought. Their excuses are all smokescreens. And of course, many of the most violent opponents of busing were racists, and many of their excuses were smokescreens. It's worth remembering that their protests were never once aimed at making their kids' schools better-which might have actually had some effect-but were intended solely to keep blacks out, which had the effect of turning the world against them. Not to condone that racism in any way, but one of the things I understand now that I didn't then was that the poor whites were lashing out at least in part out of a sense of their own impotence. The white parents whose kids were bused were those who had absolutely no other choice. They saw their kids being treated as guinea pigs, and they didn't like it. What parent would?

Another thing I can see now that I didn't then was how keenly the opponents of busing felt the class divide. "Thousands of letters poured into [Judge Garrity's] chambers," writes J. Anthony Lukas in Common Ground, his great book about the Boston busing crisis, "some reasoned arguments against busing, but most of them fierce attacks on his character and lineage. . . .Many of the angriest letters and phone calls emphasized the judge's remoteness from Boston, his long residence in affluent Wellesley, where his family and friends were exempt from his court order." (Garrity had two teenage daughters in high school at the time.)

My own memory is that it became difficult for even the once-sainted Ted Kennedy to enter Southie after the buses began rolling. Where did Ted Kennedy's kids go to school? the antibusing forces used to taunt. Where did Mayor Kevin White's kids go to school? Not to any public school in Boston, that's for sure. To believe that integration was the only moral course does not mean that Garrity's busing orders were the only moral option. Perhaps it was the only way, given the legendary intransigence of the Boston School Committee. But now that I am a parent and view these matters through a different prism, Garrity's orders strike me as unnecessarily cruel, as if he were punishing the school children for the actions of their elders. Besides, to return to the Vietnam parallel, wouldn't it have made a huge difference in how integration was implemented if Judge Garrity's or Ted Kennedy's or Kevin White's kids had been enrolled in the Boston schools? However deeply they felt about the busing crisis, they could never have the personal stake of someone whose child was being bused.

Inasmuch as the rich have never sent their kids to public school, perhaps it was too much to expect Ted Kennedy to put his kids in the school system. Even so, it wouldn't have manered if the white middle class had stayed. They could have served as a kind of proxy for the Garritys and the Kennedys and the Mayor Whites, a role the white middle class often plays in our society. Instead, here's what happened: In 1972, there were 96,000 students enrolled in the Boston schools, of whom 60 percent were white. Sixteen years later, only 57,000 students remain, with less than a quarter of them white.

Think about that for a minute. That means that 44,000 white students have left the school system. Forty-four thousand! Nearly half the students in the school system have vanished, almost all of them the sons and daughters of the white middle class. Or, to put it another way, those 44,000 students represent 75,000 or so parents who effectively have dropped out of the Boston public school system.

It takes, I believe, a strong dose of denial to believe that those 75,000 middle-class parents would not have made a difference. During the time they have been fleeing, the Boston school system has gone through one mediocre superintendent after another (the current man, Lavel Wilson, nearly lost his job recently when the school board barely gave him a vote of confidence; a few days after the vote, he demanded a $120,000 annual housing allowance); it has seen the reading and other test scores drop dramatically; and it has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with urban schools in America. The schools in Boston are so bad that when Boston University offered to take over some of the worst of them in Chelsea, the community leapt at the chance. (Naturally, the teachers' union has gone to court to stop Boston University.) Since the white middle class left, the system has simply fallen apart. Can this really be sheer coincidence? I think not.

The editor's son

One painful result of this massive exodus of the white middle class is that those few who did stay and fight wound up feeling like suckers. In his book, Lukas tells the story of one such couple, Colin and Joan Diver, whose son Brad was in elementary school. Colin Diver was a lawyer who worked for Mayor White. When he first moved to Boston, he had lived in the suburbs but eventually rejected what he saw as the sterility of suburbia to become an urban homesteader in the city. ("Both Colin and Joan yearned for the racial, ethnic, and class mix to be found only in the inner city," writes Lukas of their decision to move to Boston's South End.) Happily for them, their son was enrolled in one of those wonderful little havens, a good, innovative, integrated public school, called Bancroft, whose recent transformation showed exactly the kind of effect an involved white middle class can have. (Again, from Common G"One night in August 1967, two dozen young professionals gathered. . .to consider founding a private school. As they haggled over curriculum, Susan Thomas whispered to Piers Lewis, 'If we put a fraction of this energy into a public school, l bet we could make it into what we want.'" Which is precisely what they did.)

Over time, however, the quality of the Divers' little school was eroded by one after another of Garrity's decrees. Was Garrity's heart in the right place? Of course it was. Did that do the Divers any good? Of course not. In frustration, parents began moving their kids out of the school. Those who remained, like the Divers, were worn down. They had other problems as well-their neighborhood had deteriorated badly, making it dangerous for them even to go outside their own house. But the failure of the school weighed heavily upon them.

By 1976, two years after busing began, it had come to this: "Many Bancroft students were in academic difficulties, with reading scores a particular focus of concern. Joan and Colin were dismayed to learn that Brad's scores had actually declined. As a second-grader he had tested as 'Third Grade, 7-9 Months'; as a third-grader, he registered only as 'Third Grade, 2-4 Months.' For a child of Brad's promise, that was plainly unacceptable. Joan and Colin wondered once again whether they were sacrificing their children's future on the altar of their social principles." Soon afterwards, the Divers decided they too had to leave.

Here is the rub of course. Here is what makes each middle-class parent's personal, wrenching decision to move so understandable and ultimately so forgivable. No one is willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of their social principles. How can they? It's one thing to sacrifice yourself, but quite another to offer up your children, about whom you have overwhelming feelings of protection and in whom you invest your most deeply felt hopes and dreams. Parents do things for their children they would never do for anyone else. My grandfather, who was a traveling salesman, hocked his only car to pay for my mother's wedding. Parents quit jobs they love to take higher paying work they hate for the sake of their children. This magazine has long believed that parents who make such a "career sacrifice" are actually hurting their children-that the extra money means little in the grand scheme of things if the parents don't love what they're doing. Sacrifice the money, the editor argues, and be happy in your work and family.

But though he is a passionate believer in public schools, I have never once heard the editor suggest that one should sacrifice the chance to send one's children to private school in order to help save the public school system. It's an unthinkable thought. The editor himself took his son out of Washington's public schools under circumstances not unlike those faced by the Divers. If you have the option, dammit, you take it.

I don't mean to suggest that it can ever be otherwise. How do you counteract one of humanity's most strongly felt emotions'? But that's also why the state of the big city public school systems can seem so hopeless to me at times. Unless you have an involved middle class-unless you have that parental vigilance-it is difficult to see how things are going to change,

The blacks' shame

Where is the impetus for change to come from? Just as it is too much to ask Ted Kennedy to send his kids to public school, it is also probably too much to expect the parents with kids still in public school to pick up where the middle class left off. In Boston, court-ordered busing is going to end soon, and in order to prepare for the change, the school committee has held a series of public hearings. The Boston Globe ran a story on the hearings, noting that even though three-quarters of the students are now black, Hispanic, or Asian, "the typical speaker [at the sparsely attended hearings] was a white, well-educated and middle-class parent." The reporter found this fact "ironic," but she also quoted a consultant who got to the heart of the matter: "When you're talking about the underclass," he said, "these people don't see themselves as part of the mainstream. When you talk about reforms that are good, they think you're not talking about them."

No, if the public schools are ever going to get better, the forces for change are going to have to come from people outside the system. In effect, we have to find a way to replace the club of parental vigilance with some other, equally powerful force. What might that be? One possibility ought to be America's urban black leadership, which has been as much at fault in the decline of the public schools as the white middle class. When have you ever heard a black politician in New York talk openly about the shame of the schools? How many black school administrators are willing to back the major reforms that might help turn their schools around? In general, the black leadership has been more interested in perpetuating a system that provides political sinecures in the administration building and protects incompetence among the rank and file than in doing anything for the kids who are stuck in the schools. This may sound harsh, but it is inarguably true. That is their shame. It would take only a few eloquent black voices to turn the state of the schools into the moral cause it ought to be.

Then there's the reform movement itself, which has gained considerable steam these past few years. As laudable as this is, we ought not kid ourselves about the reasons why. One, the most compelling, is that the schools have gotten so bad that radical measures now are acceptable in a way they weren't even ten years ago. Another is that statewide reforms help the Northamptons as much as the Bostons-perhaps more so since out here in the sticks we have a better chance of making sure they are implemented. You can live in the suburbs and still have a personal stake in reform.

But the reforms have gained momentum also because they seem so obviously right. It's criminal that the unions and the bureaucrats now regularly put their own interests ahead of their students. It's absurd, for unions to automatically protect bad teachers and for schools to require master's degrees for pay raises instead of demonstrated ability. It's infuriating the way the whole system is designed to discourage better, more idealistic people from becoming teachers. No one denies any of these things any more. The system has gotten warped, and if there is one thing the white middle class can do from the outside, it is to actively back the reforms that will unwarp it.

Waiting for Perot

There is even a role model of sorts. I was living in Texas a few years ago when Ross Perot pushed through his school reform package. It was a magnificent accomplishment, and the reforms he got turned into law were radical enough that just about everyone employed by the schools was against them. Perot by then had no personal stake in the public schools; his kids were grown. Inasmuch as he was a Texas businessman who depended on several lucrative contracts from the state, he had little to gain by championing this cause and much to lose. The only reason he did it was this: it was the right thing to do. He was on the side of the angels, and everyone knew it, and his willingness to stick his neck out is the only reason the reforms passed in the face of so much self-interested opposition.

Okay, none of us has Perot's money (he paid lobbyists on the issue out of his own pocket), or his visibility, and not many of us have his energy. But we ought to at least have his passion. We ought to care as much about saving the public schools as Ross Perot does. Since the white middle class is not going to return to the inner-city public schools anytime soon, it ought to feel moral obligation to push for change from the outside, just as Perot did. In the end, that's the only decent way to expiate the guilt.

In the meantime, the exodus continues. I was in Washington not long ago looking up old friends who had lived in the city when I had-people who had loved the city the way I did. I couldn't help but notice that most of them didn't live in Washington anymore. They lived in Bethesda. They lived in Chevy Chase. They lived in Alexandria. These were generally people who had sneered at suburbia a decade ago but were now making their peace with the suburbs. "It's nice here," they told me halfheartedly, and I knew exactly what they meant. But they also admitted, invariably, that they had moved to gain access to The Schools, and as I listened to them say those words, I could hear the guilt. It is in the sound of that guilt, I think, that one can find hope.

I fervently pray the day will come when the big city public schools get decent again. If that were to happen, I would gladly move back to the city and put my children in the schools. I would become an involved middle-class parent. In the meantime, I will watch closely from the sidelines, applauding when progress is made (when, say, Boston University takes over the Chelsea schools), grimacing when there are setbacks. But I also know that until they change, I won't be back. Yes, I've done the right thing for my kids, but I'll never, ever feel good about it. I'll always feel as if I'm an unindicted coconspirator in the one great crime of my class.
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Author:Nocera, Joseph
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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