Guest post by Jim Ryan
Who would you say is the architect of modern education law and policy?
a.) Bill Gates
b.) Horace Mann
c.) Richard Nixon
d.) Andy Rotherham
If you guessed “D,” you’re sycophantic. If you guessed C,” you’re correct. Or at least that’s what I argue in a book that officially comes out tomorrow. (It’s already available at Amazon!) The book is called Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (Oxford 2010). It’s about the law and politics of educational opportunity over the last fifty years. It tells the story by using two schools in the Richmond area, one in the central city and the other (five miles away) in a neighboring suburb, as extended examples. It’s not really a case study, nor is it a (completely) dry, abstract, academic book. It’s something in between, sort of like the duck-billed platypus of books.
Here’s the basic argument.
In March 1972, President Nixon gave an unusual televised address, devoted solely to the topic of school desegregation and busing. A few months earlier, lower federal courts in Detroit and Richmond had ordered suburban school districts to participate in metropolitan-wide desegregation plans. The courts ordered the participation of the suburbs because there were not many white students left in either city. These decisions were later overturned on appeal, but at the time of Nixon’s speech—and as hard as it might be to imagine today—the possibility of cross-district, urban-suburban busing seemed very real.
Nixon denounced busing and proposed legislation that would prohibit busing to achieve racial balance in schools, suggesting that this reflected the views of both black and white parents, who preferred neighborhood schools. He then offered an alternative approach to the problems facing urban schools. “It is time for us to make a national commitment to see that the schools in central cities are upgraded so that the children who go there will have just as good a chance to get a quality education as do the children who go to school in the suburbs.”
Nixon’s compromise was clear: poor and minority students would remain in the city and not have access to suburban schools, but efforts would be made to improve city schools. In other words, save the cities, but spare the suburbs.
To say that this compromise is all one needs to know in order to understand the basic structure of educational opportunity would be overly simplistic. But only a little. Nixon’s compromise, slightly broadened to mean that city schools should be helped in ways that don’t threaten the physical, financial, or political independence of suburban schools, has shaped just about every major education reform since. It is evident not only in legislation but also in court decisions, and it has surfaced in reforms ranging from school desegregation, to school finance litigation, school choice plans, and even the No Child Left Behind Act. It has curtailed not just liberal reforms, like desegregation and school funding litigation, but also conservative ones, like school vouchers. Indeed, to a very large extent, providing some type of aid to urban students while maintain the sanctity of suburban schools has been the defining feature of modern education law and policy in the United States.
Or so I say. At length. Too much length, frankly. If you are bored and looking for something to do, having trouble sleeping, or even if you would just like to know more, you might check the book out. Not literally, though; you should definitely buy a copy. After trying to prove my thesis, I spend some time looking ahead at the changes, especially in the suburbs, that are disrupting the traditional patterns of educational opportunity and offering both new challenges and new opportunities.