For the Public Good 

White flight hurts all our kids

White flight hurts all our kids

Back in 1984, shortly after then-Gov. Lamar Alexander had succeeded in pushing through his education-reform package featuring quasi-merit pay for teachers, he arranged a big shindig at Julia Green Elementary School in Green Hills as a validation of his triumph. In politics, after all, success is measured in terms of getting credit rather than getting results.

The bill-signing ceremony was preceded by a tour of the school and a bag lunch for the governor and the schoolchildren. Then came the exultant speechifying. However, the event went sour for Alexander when the press conference after the bill signing transmogrified into one of those nasty feeding frenzies for the media.

It all began when WSMV-Channel 4 reporter Valerie Hyman (whom Ned McWherter used to refer to as simply “that mean little girl”) asked Alexander—now that he had fixed the public schools—if he was going to take his four children out of their tony private schools and send them back to the schools for the rest of us.

When Alexander didn’t have a good answer for the obvious follow-up question (“Why not?”), the assembled press types were emboldened to pile on. Thus the event intended to celebrate the central accomplishment of Alexander’s governorship turned into a nasty little dust-up, with the message lost in the screeching.

The small incident is a useful reminder of how much the public battle over education has to do with symbols and ideology—the saintliness of “public education” vs. the villainy of the “teachers’ unions and the education bureaucrats”—and how little it has to do with the children and their futures.

That’s why there is reason to take comfort in the outcome of the recent debate over Metro education. In a denouement rife with table-pounding and chest-thumping on a number of sides, Metro Council passed the final piece of the mayor’s education package—including the 12-cent increase in the property tax rate.

Despite all the buzz words and phrases that drove the debate—“neighborhood schools,” “desegregation,” “class size,” “diversity”— it is unlikely that many of the participants had a firm grip on what was really at stake. They made the right decision anyway.

The $206 million in additional capital spending—and the program improvements it will facilitate—is a genuine benefit for the students who attend Metro’s public schools. But the investment is more important because it reduces the greatest threat that faces the school system—the threat that the white middle class will abandon the system.

Private consumption

In a county where nearly 75 percent of the population is white, white students make up only 55 percent of the public-school enrollment. This disproportion can be largely explained by the county’s larger-than-average private-school enrollment.

It is not necessary for a school system to have a large white enrollment (or for that matter, any white enrollment) to be a first-class school system. But it is important for most families in the county to feel an attachment to the public school system so that the schools can have a reasonable call on the resources of the community. If another major investment in schools slows the flight of students from the public school system, it’s more likely the community will put up the resources over the long haul to maintain the current standard of excellence in local public schools.

It is currently fashionable to bash public education in general, and the Davidson County schools in particular. But being fashionable does not make it right. It is, however easy, an ignorant person’s way of trying to look smart. While one cannot fault the parents who put up their hard-earned dollars to give their children the best chance in life in private schools, one can raise serious questions about whether they are making a good investment.

The evidence tends to point the other way. Private-school parents are, for the most part, getting gypped. For 30 years everyone in the education debate has known the unhappy truth that the effect of school quality on student achievement is largely overwhelmed by factors beyond the school walls. For a variety of reasons, ranging from ideology to budget appropriations, most of the players prefer to remain silent on this point. (Indeed, the only people actively talking about the importance of factors like family income and stability, social forces, and demographics are the teachers and their organizations, when they’re in full-throated whine about taking the rap for the failings of the schools.)

The seminal moment relating to this particular point in the education debate was the issuance in 1966 of Equality of Education Opportunity, authored by Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman. Known as the “Coleman report,” the study basically asserted that there was not much that our schools could do to foil the propensity of white middle class children to learn. While the quality of schools makes a larger difference for the prospects of minority and disadvantaged students, the report stated, even there the differences are marginal.

Based on extensive testing, the report has survived all manner of efforts to discredit it by people with a vested interest in other conclusions. The report also became the main ideological underpinning for busing in the 1970s. Mingling disadvantaged and minority students with middle-class white students, it was thought, would greatly help the disadvantaged students but would not hurt the white students.

From a 1990s perspective, that argument appears to be off-target, although not necessarily wrong. While the report’s judgments about educational effects may have been valid, other forces were unleashed that dramatically altered the educational system. The shift away from neighborhood schools undermined support for public education as a whole. And many minorities were offended at the suggestion that their children needed to be sitting next to white children in order to learn.

Test results

All this is not to say we should not try to maximize the performance of schools. It is important, however, to put to rest the specious notions that public schools in general are some sort of horror show, and that the Davidson County schools in particular are inferior to their suburban counterparts.

While public schools appear less orderly than schools that have greater authority in selecting students and regulating their behavior, parents should not confuse order with achievement. It is not clear that there are wide differences in students’ academic performance, once the effects of adverse selection, demographics, and family background are factored in. One of the more tantalizing statistics is that there is virtually no difference in performance between public- and private-school students among those who take advanced math courses in high school (first-year algebra and beyond).

Anyone willing to dig below the superficial figures and find the statistical truth will discover that, at the local level, Davidson County schools do quite well in comparison to their neighbors. While the average ACT score in Davidson County (19.1) is below the state average (19.7), the system vaults to above-average status when appropriate demographic adjustments are made. Of the adjoining counties, only Williamson—with the state’s highest per capita income—can say the same thing.

It is not surprising that Davidson County schools outperform their neighbors, on a demographically weighted basis. The teacher force is among the best-paid and best-educated in the state, and the system is basically well run, in a pedestrian sort of way.

But for the long-term success of the county, it is important that the schools remain relevant to an overwhelming majority of the residents—whether they have children, grandchildren, or just the glint of future children in their eyes. To maintain that relevance, the public system must stop the outflow of middle-class students and win back the little brothers and sisters of those who have already left.

That means that, like other government agencies beset by challenges from the private sector, the school administration must remake itself as a customer-oriented organization. But that is easier said than done.

The product is already sound. The new capital improvements—and the corresponding return to something more like neighborhood schools—will help. Momentum has built over the last two years. It’s critical now that the system succeed in attracting the customers it has been losing for so long.

Phil Ashford recently left the administration of Mayor Phil Bredesen, where he was a senior policy advisor. His comments do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the mayor or anyone on the mayor’s staff.

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