Mitch Pearlstein: How to fight segregation? Well, heard of vouchers?

  • Article by: MITCH PEARLSTEIN
  • Updated: December 12, 2007 - 7:42 PM

We're not going to coax or coerce students into underperforming schools. But it might help to give more students a real choice.

Along with Myron Orfield, I don't think it's a good thing at all that so many public schools in the Twin Cities area are racially segregated ("Segregation is back, and our future is on the line," Dec. 7). I may disagree with him about the extent to which minority children might benefit academically if classrooms were better integrated, since he ignores how hundreds of busing and similar programs over the last half-century have led to little improvement in achievement. But on social grounds, I concur fully, because it's just not very healthy or wise for kids to be racially, ethnically and economically cut off from one another.

Nevertheless, unless I'm missing something, Orfield dismisses a very large problem when it comes to implementing some kind of remedy. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if significant numbers of minority students were to transfer out of Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, wouldn't significant numbers of white students need to transfer in? Otherwise, public schools in the two central cities would grow even more disproportionately minority.

So the solution, it seems, would be to get suburban parents to send their boys and girls to inner-city schools. They could be forced to do so, of course, but there's not a chance that such a plan would be adopted, and to Orfield's credit, he writes of incentives rather than mandates. Consequently, any initiative would be dependent on mothers and fathers volunteering to remove sons and daughters from schools they're probably pleased with and sending them instead to schools routinely described as "troubled."

Just about the only people I can see doing this are real leaders: men and women (picking two groups at random) such as members of Congress and faculty members in colleges of education. What might they do when it comes to sending their own kids to urban schools? Or more precisely, what have they been doing already?

To the best of my understanding, not a single member of Congress (535 leaders in all) has sent one of his or her own children to a Washington, D.C., public school for years. If I'm mistaken, I apologize, but I wouldn't be mistaken by much.

Exactly where do senators and representatives enroll their own children? Frequently, of course, and in fairness, it's back in their home districts. Still, it's informative that, according to surveys conducted by the Heritage Foundation, about 37 percent of current House members and 45 percent of senators have sent at least one of their children to a private school. Among national legislative leaders, anyway, there doesn't seem to be overwhelming enthusiasm when it comes to sending their children to inner-city public schools.

What about closer to home? This is tricky ground, not only because I don't have any hard evidence concerning the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota but also because I'm an alumnus of the program and have no interest in angering or embarrassing anyone there.

Nevertheless, if I were to go out on a short limb and speculate, I would guess that not a single faculty member in the college (there are about 200) has sent his or her own child to any one of these Minneapolis high schools in a spell: Edison, Henry, North, Roosevelt or Washburn. I can easily imagine some faculty kids attending Southwest and probably South high schools. But I'd be surprised if they have attended any of the other five schools that are generally perceived as educationally weaker. Again, I'll apologize if I'm wrong, but if I am, I suspect it wouldn't be by much.

I presume a strong majority of members of Congress and university faculty really do want their children to attend schools with all different kinds of peers. I also presume that while this is important to them, finding a school where their kids could be safe and academically challenged is even more important. And I further presume that most congressional and professorial leaders have been able to place their boys and girls in such preferred schools by exercising what can be described as school choice, be it the "residential" kind (picking a nice place to live), or by sending them to private schools (known as the "voucher" kind of choice when kids are low-income).

Question: Given the unfortunate but likely fact that various Twin Cities neighborhoods will remain segregated for the foreseeable future, can you think of a more effective way of mixing up white kids and minority kids, poor kids and rich kids, than by giving them the means to attend schools -- be they public or private -- where lots of different parents really want them to be?

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment.

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