How will choice affect inner-city public schools?

In any ample, subsidized program of parental choice, the student population of public schools in the inner-city will diminish. What, then, will be the effect upon the education in those schools for children whose parents, though now empowered, choose for them to stay put?

And second, what eventually will be the effect upon our society of subsidizing these adults to exercise their 14th Amendment right like the rest of us?

Each of these questions deserves a book; the few paragraphs that follow are but an invitation to take both issues seriously. Be forewarned of my own preference and for subsidized choice, at least for our lower-income families. (And note that I will not dwell on test scores, which clearly suffer no harm from parental decision and, rather, appear to improve. In any case, a modest change, up or down, would be scant reason to reject choice.)

The effect upon the mind and spirit of the child

The child of the unmoneyed family who witnesses their deliberation, then selection, of preferred schools will grasp that being a parent is no trivial role among those of our human species. “Here is authority in the very person that I love and with whom I live. In this world about me, family matters at least as much as school; in any case, no school can tell them that I have to go there.”

The child begins to appreciate that grownups, like those in this very family, have a role in the entire adult order of things. “Parents watch the news and worry about their country; they can vote, and this matters for people I don’t even know. Being a parent is a big deal. Maybe I can be one someday.”

Such observations should be no less true of that child whose parents now freely choose to keep him or her in what had been that one specific and unavailable public school. “It’s been a good place for me so far. I’m learning, and I love it. If things go bad, they can always make a switch.”

The mind and spirit of the lower-income parent (LIP)

By LIP, I will here mean those (mostly inner-city) parents with assets and incomes insufficient to (1) move residence and thus qualify for their preferred public school; or (2) pay tuition at a private school of their choice. I’m guessing that these LIPs comprise half our families, though varying widely in degree of financial capacity and thus the need for dollar assistance to choose the child’s school.

Such struggling families were the target of our 19th Century elite who managed to force most LIP children of the inner-city into “public schools,” where they would learn a good deal from selected teachers and the wisdom of the Bible. Horace Mann, that legendary designer and begetter of public school systems, supposed that he was doing a form of Christian ministry by making the King James version a part of the standard curriculum.

Mann’s report in his twelfth and final term as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education (1848) stressed his own religious convictions and the urgency of their presentation to all school children:

“In this age of the world … no student of history, or observer of mankind, can be hostile to the precepts and doctrines of the Christian religion … the use of the Bible in schools anywhere … [has] my full concurrence.”

For half a century, Mann’s ideal “non-sectarian” Christian curriculum was to spread and grow. Thereafter, the public school focus began inexorably to shift toward the purely secular. In due course, the Supreme Court was to eliminate prayer and claims of doctrinal reality entirely from the curriculum. At no point along the way did public education ask the opinion of the powerless LIP on matters celestial or even terrestrial.

Nor does it yet, and, in my opinion, with consequent inquiry to the personal and civic roles of those LIPs who conclude, quite reasonably, that the higher ranks of our society consider them incapable of responsible purpose and judgment.

Thus, the parent, like the child, comes to see the institution of family within their social class as feeble, even risky, in the eyes of higher society. “Parenthood for people like us is merely a production line. We make ’em; but it is P.S. 26 that will take ’em and, possibly, wake ’em, to an order of things higher than I could manage. In any case, what’s my choice? Responsibility is not a role for parents like us.”

This, in my view, is no way to build and maintain a democratic society. Even – or especially – assuming that our diverse levels of wealth persist, the poorest of citizens should experience the dignity of being responsible for their own kids, instead of surrendering their minds and spirits to utter strangers.

And with what effect? Horace Mann would, I hope, be profoundly embarrassed at the harvest wrought by our states’ educational culling of their ordinary families. It does assure jobs for their children’s’ mentors, but with what systemic lift for the child?

The effect upon the civic order

Our systemic defining of the LIP family as incompetent to choose embeds itself in the mind of society at all levels. The upper half tends to view the young urban adult as emerging from an inner-city miasma, after 12 years, with a probable deficit in learning, behavior and civic spirit; and I’m not clear that this state of mind is simple prejudice.

But is this the best our democracy can do for these children and for our own national identity?

Sadly, the spirit of Horace Mann yet presides over our children of the street. We want them to become like us but systematically deny them the chance to experience our own middle-class freedom and responsibility.