Public schools
Are sinking sure;
All the worse,
If kids are poor.

As U.S. schools, especially those serving minorities and the poor, fall further and further behind Europe and East Asia, self-flagellation rules our education establishment. We always admit that what we’ve been doing up to now hasn’t worked, but finally, by cracky, we’re ready to bite the bullet and get at it. This biting generally takes the form of punishing teachers whose students don’t measure up.

That might seem a curious response to a problem whose basic cause has long been identified as poverty. Being poor leads to the usual ills: low birth-weight, lead poisoning, hunger, bad diet, moving too often, and crowded homes. Teachers, however, make a handy scapegoat. If their schools don’t produce results, fire them. No doubt a slew of them richly deserve firing, but this won’t do much to resolve the problem.

Years ago, busing seemed perhaps to hold greater promise. Let’s mix the poor kids in with the middle-class kids (in many cities and towns, rich kids attend private schools) and enhance classroom diversity. Unfortunately, the middle-class parents objected. Apparently they didn’t want to subject their kids to long bus rides for the sake of integration. Raleigh has just dropped its longstanding busing program altogether and other cities are on the verge.

Magnet and charter schools have also proliferated as an alternative. They often serve as islands of enlightenment, integration, and motivation in a sea of educational apathy. Or not. Measuring their success is tricky, and plainly they suck out many of the most promising students from the remaining troubled schools. Just as plainly though, they have succeeded in retaining valuable parents who would otherwise have fled to wealthier communities had their kids received no special treatment.

But what does all this rearranging of the deck chairs have to do with poverty, a major underlying cause of weak education? Not much. Alleviating poverty enough to improve educational success would require the dreaded “redistribution of income,” so feared in our hallowed market economy. Equally hallowed is zoning. In countless jurisdictions, zoning is the chief tool for separating the haves from the have-nots, thus plunking all the have-nots into festering schools. There they stew in their own juice. Those schools then pull down our national performance ratings when measured against, say, France or Korea.

Meanwhile, the government is contriving a national grading system and education experts are exploring new incentives for study and experimenting with new disciplinary standards. Sure, America is behind the curve on such innovations. But we ought not to kid ourselves that this tinkering will fix the fundamental failings of our schools. The growing disparity in family incomes will most likely undercut any halting progress we make within the school walls themselves.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. www.otherwords.org

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