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50 Years After Brown, Black Schools Still Lag. Can We Change That?

Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, education for African-Americans is still woefully inferior — and there’s still no consensus on how to change things. [IMGCAP(1)]

Republicans and Democrats did agree to pass President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which calls for a combination of state standards-setting, testing, accountability and added money. But the two parties have been fighting about it ever since.

In many states, pressure is building to water down the standards, limit testing and postpone accountability. In the meantime, Democrats are reverting to their classic stance that all that’s wrong with education can be fixed by spending more money.

Republicans counter that the government is already spending enough money, even though average teacher salaries are far lower than for most other professions. They also say (correctly, I think) that accountability and parental choice are going to be necessary if schools are to improve.

One new idea for aiding middle- and lower-income students of all races — one that combines the approaches of “choice” and “more money” in a bipartisan fashion — is the “Pell Grants for Kids” plan proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander would offer parents $500 per child to spend as they choose for education.

Formerly U.S. secretary of Education, Alexander says that the $500 could be spent on tutoring or private school tuition, but he also envisions parents’ combining their money to improve teaching or enlarge programs at local public schools.

The cost would be $2.5 billion in new federal money in the first year, which would cover scholarships to kindergarten and first-graders. It would then rise to $15 billion a year — enough to cover all 30 million children with family incomes below the national average.

Alexander’s proposal is modeled on the Pell Grant program that provides $13 billion for lower- and middle-income students to attend college. Alexander acknowledges that his program is a “voucher” — something that many Democrats detest — but he notes that Pell grants and the GI Bill for veterans are vouchers, too.

On the anniversary of the Brown decision last month, some civil rights veterans said that nothing had been accomplished as a result of the ruling striking down America’s separate-and-unequal segregated school systems.

Such claims ignore the fact that the Brown ruling sparked the civil rights revolution that changed America for the better, led to the rise of a large black middle class, and opened the upper echelons of American society and government to people of all races.

Yet it remains tragically true that, for most African-American children, education is still separate and increasingly unequal.

As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom reported in their 2003 book, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” the average 12th-grade African-American child performs less well on reading tests than the average eighth-grade white or Asian child.

They also perform four years behind whites in history and are five years behind in math and geography. Abigail Thernstrom told me in an interview that Hispanic students on average perform as poorly as blacks, but that the gap between their performance and that of whites is closing, even as the black-white gap widens.

In the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, 61 percent of black eighth-graders and 52 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders scored “below basic” in math, compared with 20 percent of whites.

In reading, the so-called “nation’s report card” showed that 46 percent of blacks had “below basic” skills in reading compared with 44 percent for Hispanics, 17 percent for whites and 21 percent for Asians.

In a paper prepared for a Harvard conference on the aftermath of Brown, conservative education expert Chester Finn concluded, “The bottom line is both ineluctable and grim: Brown’s promise has not been kept.”

According to Finn, “desegregating the schools was at best a partial victory if black youngsters attending those schools are not learning enough to succeed in American life and are thus destined to remain at ‘the back of the bus’ — not because laws and policemen are keeping them there, but because they aren’t learning enough to move to the front. In 2004, the main education problem faced by black Americans is not state-enforced racial segregation. It is unacceptably weak academic achievement.”

The long term danger, Abigail Thernstrom argues, is that in a competitive, information-age economy, lower-income African-Americans will constitute a “racially identifiable underclass.” She said, “It will shred the fabric of American society, and it is morally unacceptable.”

What to do? Thernstrom contends that Alexander’s $500 Pell grant is “a pathetically small voucher.” Instead, she favors a robust experiment in school choice for lower-income parents.

More radically, James Pinkerton, a fellow at the New America Foundation, has proposed a $6,000 Pell-style grant for each parent that amounts to a federal takeover of school funding — a proposal which, Finn counters, might violate the U.S. and state constitutions.

Another far-reaching proposal, by Matthew Miller of the Center for American Progress, involves a trade: The federal government would raise the salary of every teacher in a poor school by 50 percent, contingent on the willingness of teachers’ unions to allow bad teachers to be fired and to allow bonuses for teachers to improve student performance.

Under Miller’s proposal, beginning salaries of teachers in big cities would rise from $40,000 to $60,000 to attract better-qualified applicants, while the best teachers could earn up to $150,000. Miller estimates the cost at $30 billion a year.

The Bush administration — despite Democratic charges to the contrary — has increased federal education outlays for low-income students significantly, from $8.8 billion in President Bill Clinton’s last year to $13.3 billion in this year’s budget.

But the administration’s determination to hold down spending seems to guarantee an end to further increases. If Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is elected, more money may be spent, but teachers union influence will likely ensure that there is no further reform. Either way, those who will suffer most are those who can least afford it.

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