A Quiz and a Shameless Book Plug

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.

9 Replies to “A Quiz and a Shameless Book Plug”

  1. You’ve hooked me. I just placed an order for your book. Coincidentally, I’m about to start your chapter in “From Schoolhouse to Courthouse.” Looking forward to reading both!

  2. Sounds interesting. I haven’t read your book yet, but doesn’t the fact that Title I gets distributed by formula broadly across the country contradict the idea that urban schools get the help they need. Clearly suburban schools have been protected (district lines have been held sacrosanct and property taxes skew spending), but recent fair funding litigation and legislation suggests people are starting to see through the rhetoric of Nixon and Congress.

  3. My alternative interpretation stressing economics during the Nixon administration is now up at TWIE. But the governmental policy and economics were interconnected. The big neigborhood that feeds my school became the place where people were relocated by urban renewal. Urban renewal in our city, like the overall suburban growth, was designed by 18 interlocking trusts. The trusts were quasi-goevernmental entities (the state Supreme Court almost certainly was bribed when it ruled that the system was constitutional.) As with Robert Moses and as portrayed in the movie Chinatown, segregation was choreagraphed by a government-market collaboration.

    Then, the complete disaster for school occured during Reagan, as supply side economics offered three sets of incentives for shutting down factories in the inner city, that were still profitable, and relocating them in the exurbs or in the 3rd world. Those jobs would have disappeared due to market forces, but governmental policy accelerated the process. when jobs disappear in mass, overnight, families can’t adjust and many break.

  4. I grew up in Oregon and moved to Texas 7 years ago when my wife’s career brought us here. Having been involved in education in both states I have been struck by the contrast in how the two state’s organize school districts. While there are multiple historical reasons for everything, I’ve gotta think that race looms large.

    Oregon is historically a middle class and lily-white state. There is obviously no legacy of slavery and outside of Portland there was little industry to draw blacks from the south during the great migrations of the 20th century. There is a growing Hispanic population but that trend post-dates all the organization of school districts. In Oregon one finds that most urban areas outside Portland are covered by only one consolidated school district that covers the entire metro area from the inner city to the outer edge suburbs. What might have been multiple rural districts in the early 20th century were generally consolidated into metro districts by the 50s. For example, the city of Salem is covered by the Salem-Keizer School district which serves over 40,000 students in the entire metro area. Any middle class suburbanite settling in Salem is pretty much going to find themselves in the Salem-Keizer school district unless they chose to live WAY WAY out in some exurban small town and commute long distances. And although poverty and the number of Hispanic students has increased greatly since the 70s when I was in school, it is still almost entirely white. The black student population is less than 1%

    Now compare Salem to Waco Texas which is a comparably sized metro area. Waco is definitely the old south. It was a cotton growing region in the 19th century and the legacy of slavery runs deep here. East Waco was basically settled by freed slaves in the late 19th century and the legacy of segregation is still very apparent here in Waco. By my count the greater Waco area is served by 12 different school districts. One can see them here on the Texas TEA district map by drilling down to Waco


    Now for an outsider to Waco it appears to me that the district boundaries are almost perfectly gerrymandered to follow racial and economic boundaries. And it isn’t just an urban vs suburban thing. By my count there are 5 different school districts that cover parts of the city of Waco proper. In fact there are numerous affluent pockets within the city of Waco that are carved out and placed in suburban districts rather than the urban Waco ISD. I don’t know whether it is a chicken or egg thing, but the effect is striking and obvious. And one really has to ask whether it takes 12 separate school districts with 12 separate superintendents and central administrations and bus facilities and so on to educate the same 40,000 students that one district does in Salem Oregon. The public High School that I attended in Oregon in the 70s had an attendance area that extended from the very inner city out to rural areas 20 miles outside of town. It was all white back then but it was still a complete mix of urban and rural kids. Nothing like that exists in Texas. And I can’t think of any reason other than race for why that is the case.

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