Hogan's Alley

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Jonathan Kozol On The End Of Local Control of Schools

The sad death of Ms. Parks has me ruminating over a letter to the editor of the Book Review in last Sunday's Times. The letter is from Jonathan Kozol, longtime advocate for equality in education and the author of a book, "The Shame of The Nation", reviewed by Nathan Glazer in the previous week's edition.

The gist of the argument between the two men boils down to Kozol's insistence that the current structure of education and its control by local town and city governments must be overturned if true equality in education is ever to be achieved. For his part, Glazer appears to view this as an unchangeable status quo. (Full Disclosure: I did not read the book in question or the original review due to my travels.)

Kozol argues that the essence of the Civil Rights legislation was that local practices are subject to be overruled by the Federal Government and its Courts. As he, perhaps too passionately states:
Glazer insists that white indifference or racism are not the major obstacles to integrated education. "Rather, other values, which are not simply shields for racism, stand in the way,'' he says, one of which, he adds, is "freedom from state imposition.'' Is it not strange that no such exculpation was provided by Mr. Glazer or by any other reputable Northern intellectuals to white segregationists in Mississippi when they raised exactly the same clarion call of "freedom from state imposition'' (or, in that case, "federal imposition'') to defend their own apartheid system 50 years ago? Why was it so transparently "racism'' in the South? And why is it now conveniently discovered to be "other values'' when it comes to Northern states such as New York?

In this he misses, I think, an essential difference between the two situations. Eradicating segregation involved eliminating state laws, all across the South, that enforced behavioral practices that were plainly in violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution. There was no accompanying societal good on the side of segregation.

In education, the inequalities in the funding of public school systems are an absolute by-product of the concept of local control of school systems and, importantly, the concomitant local funding of schools. Local control, let us remember, is not only a concept as old as the nation, but in the sixties was the rallying cry of liberal education reformers.

If I interpret Kozol correctly, his solution would appear to be that states should assume control of education and assure equal funding, either by statewide taxes or by some forced redistribution of the current local property tax base of school funding. This logic demands that if communities within a state must be funded equally, unequal funding between say Mississippi and California is also morally intolerable. Therefore, the ultimate solution is total Federal funding of all public education.

Leaving aside issues of cost and the varying cultural values placed on the importance of learning, one thing is certain. If the Federal government is to fund the schools, the Federal government will surely set policy for all the schools in the nation. All schools must operate by the same standards of staffing and curriculum if the equalized funding has any hope of achieving the hoped for results. What this will mean is total political control over the issues that now cause strife in local school districts. How will sex education, evolution, history, alternate lifestyles, the literary canon and other controversial issues be taught? What budget will be allocated to extra curricular activities? How many services will be tailored to the handicapped, the gifted and other special interest groups?

Kozol may harbor some dreamlike image of the Department of Education and educational professionals sharing some enlightened consensus on all these issues, which then is imposed on the population. If he does, he has not been paying attention. Do social workers control the welfare and human service systems? Do doctors control policy for abortion, end of life, health insurance, and other controversial healthcare issues? They do not. All social workers and doctors are not even of one mind on these issues. If Kozol were to scratch the surface of teachers across the country he would find very different ideas about appropriate education policy and practice that he is used to in the Northeast and the other large cities he visits.

I think that if there were Federal control of education, the political fights and rancor would far surpass the current debates over the so-called wedge issues in our politics. I think it is not an overstatement to assert that fights over these issues, crucial to future of each parent's beloved child could very well tear apart the fabric of our nation. The only means by which this might be ameliorated would be through the use of (forgive the use of blasphemy Mr. Kozol) vouchers. Each child's education equally funded and portable at the discretion of each family, according to its values. Ironically, the main opposition to vouchers comes from teachers and the educational establishment, which fears the loss of control over its guaranteed number of students each year and the resulting number of guaranteed jobs.

As an aside, Mr. Kozol's letter is full of the venom of the righteous true believer. He is the sole owner of truth, right and justice on this issue. It drips with his fury at misguided souls such as Glazer who do not share his values or the benefit of his brief career as a teacher two or more decades ago. It shares its attitude with much of what passes for argument by self-defined progressives. Their failure to persuade the majority of the correctness of their perspective, coupled with their derisive demeaning of those who disagree is the hallmark of the current plight of the left and the Democratic Party. It is also the cause of the fetish that is made of SCOTUS appointments. Having abandoned political debate and reliance on democracy, their only remaining hope lies in the issuance of dicta from the bench with which they agree.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this issue.