Yesterday I read in the New York Times that the nation's public schools are today more segregated than they have been in the thirty years since court-ordered desegregation plans were put into place. The final blow to the dream of integrated schools seems to be the rescinding of more and more of the court orders mandating the bussing of students to schools where the majority of students are black. However, the plan was less than effective from the start as white parents who could afford to moved their children further and further from the city core in order to prevent their children from being bussed to largely black schools.
What went wrong here? First of all, the federal government made the mistake of deciding that parents were going to allow the burden of healing this country's deeply divisive racial history to be placed on their children. Secondly, the government decided that force and only force would be effective in reversing the tremendous opportunity gap that was in existence between white and black children. Thirdly, inner city schools were allowed to continue to deteriorate. Little wonder that forced school desegregation has been one of the least popular and least effective government interventions in our communities.
Solutions that rely on government force often seem like the most efficient, effective, and low-cost way to go about solving social problems at the time. However, any student of history can tell you that such solutions provoke unintended negative consequences as great as or greater than the intended reform. As the rate of change and speed of communication continue to accelerate in our society, negative consequences become apparent and come home to roost faster and faster. Perhaps in our lifetimes we will even gain enough first hand experience of this phenomenon that we will be able to predict the outcome and forego the use of such forced solutions.
So what could we have done (and do now) differently? First of all, we need to recognize that in a free society people need to be and remain free to live in neighborhoods of their choice and send their children to schools of their choice. Secondly, we need to bite the bullet and recognize that only a tremendous investment of resources in schools and their teachers is going to improve the educational opportunities of all of our children. Thirdly, we need to put that local, state, and federal investment where it is needed the most--in inner city and rural schools where the majority of children come from poor families.
A commitment to building, maintaining, equipping and staffing model schools in the poorest neighborhoods will attract people of all races and ethnic background to the excellent schools. Having small classes and first-rate teachers will guarantee success. Every large city should have college preparatory academies and boarding schools available for the children of the poor whose (often single) parents are working two or more jobs and who do not have the time, energy, or knowledge needed to supervise their children's learning.
Where local funding cannot provide such schools, states and the federal government must step in to fund them. Only in this way can we voluntarily integrate our diverse society--by attracting parents of every ancestry to the very best educational opportunities available in our nation. Any realtor can tell you that parents will move to districts with excellent schools for their children.
The future belongs to the educated of all classes, colors, and cultures. America needs to have the very best schools at every level available to all her children if we are to remain in the forefront of human history.
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