Thursday, January 24, 2013

Charter Schools and Integration

Little Rock Central High
The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education has a new study just out on the effect of charter schools on racial integration. As the study observes in its introduction, many school desegregation advocates have argued that if families have freedom of choice in their children’s schooling, the families will exercise this choice to maintain or increase racial segregation. As Steve Caldas and I discussed in our book, Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation, this line of thinking led to the coercive desegregation movement, which sought to dictate student assignments to schools in order to achieve true racial integration. Caldas and I maintain that this movement was self-defeating because policies of force contradicted the goals and interests of those who were able to move across school districts or out of the public school system and into the private. One of the examples we give is Little Rock, Arkansas, important for its historic symbolism because of the highly televised battle over the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957-58. Although Central High has long been acclaimed as a glowing success story in desegregation, by the time Bill Clinton visited the school to celebrate this success forty years later, it had changed from an all-white school to one that was two-thirds black, with much of the white minority internally segregated from the majority into the school’s advanced classes.
Naturally, those who believe that freedom of choice should be limited or eliminated for purposes of desegregation oppose charter schools because free choice is one of the core principles of the charter movement. However, the authors of the NCSPE study look at that historic district of Little Rock and they find that charter schools there actually show less racial segregration than the district’s non-charter schools.  They maintain that this is because schools are based on place of residence and that charter schools give people reasons to send their children to schools in other neighborhoods.
This is, of course, a case study of one school district and it is possible that a different district could yield different results. I would not conclude that charter schools necessarily produce more racial integration, or that this should be one of the goals of school choice. Still, I think the authors have a solid argument. If families see sending their children to schools with children from other neighborhoods and from other backgrounds as in the interests of their own children, then they will send their children to those schools. If they don’t, then they won’t, and efforts at coercion will backfire.

Friday, January 18, 2013

More "Civic Engagement"

My university is now considering a proposal to make “public service” and “civic engagement” part of the tenure consideration process. I have written about the civic engagement crusade on several occasions (see here, here, here, and here). In particular, I have pointed out how making participating in the civic engagement program a job expectation for a university professor promotes intellectual conformity. I have also written an article on this movement, which should be forthcoming in the journal Society in the spring. What follows are excerpts from that article. I hope those interested will read it in its entirety and also become aware of this journal, which is exceptional for its commitment to intellectual openness.

In January 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and National Engagement of the Association of American Universities and Colleges released its report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. The report called for a program of civic learning and of training in civic engagement that would pervade every aspect of higher education.  This program would be linked to similar efforts at all other levels of schooling. In the words of the report, "[t]he central work of advancing civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education must, of course, be done by faculty members across disciplines, by student affairs professionals across divisions, and by administrators in every school and at every level. The fourth prominent group of actors are the students themselves [bold in the original]. The collective work of these groups should be guided by a shared sense that civic knowledge and democratic engagement, in concert with others and in the face of contestation, are absolutely vital to the quality of intellectual inquiry itself, to this nation’s future, and to preparation for life in a diverse world" (p. 2).  It called for fostering "a civic ethos across all parts of campus and educational culture" (p. 31) …
A Crucible Moment builds on the belief that education offers the means of meeting the individual needs of all Americans and reconstructing American society. It cites a breathtaking array of “pressing issues,” including “growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more.” The answer to all of these problems lies in “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers.” The report does not go into detail about how the professors and teachers, who do not necessarily possess such great social problem solving skills, will produce this generation of superbeings, but it does recommend that institutions foster what is variously called a “democratic ethos” and a “civic ethos” on every campus through “service learning” and “community engagement.” Whatever its limitations, this federally sponsored report certainly does not fall short in its belief that through education all things are possible…

Calls for service and engagement draw heavily on popular versions of social capital theory. This theoretical perspective most often argues that social ties are investments that people make in each other that help them achieve individual and collective goals. The most influential social capital argument during the 1990s shared the general anxiety over the state of American civic health. This was the “bowling alone” argument of political scientist Robert Putnam, who maintained that the participation of Americans in communal activities, such as bowling leagues, parent-teacher organizations, and clubs had declined and that this decline was indicative of a loss of national social capital. Readers of Alexis de Tocqueville may recognize this as an updated version of Tocqueville’s identification of voluntary associations as the foundation of American democracy.…

When Alexis de Tocqueville described voluntary associations as a basis for American democracy, he was referring to associations that the people themselves had formed of their own will, not public commitments decided upon and directed by the collaboration of governmental and educational bureaucracies. While different people and different political philosophies use the word “democracy” in a variety of ways, the term most commonly refers to a system of government in which people either make political decisions for themselves (direct democracy) or elect representatives to make political decisions (representative democracy). In the former, there is no question of anyone “re-making” the people, since the people think for themselves and have the freedom to be what they are. In the latter, also, the goal of re-shaping a society along democratic lines is a contradiction because a representative government represents its public as it is; the government does not try to re-make its constituents…

At the level of higher education, a crusade to build social capital poses special kinds of problems. Social capital refers to networks of social relations that promote efficacious action through the control and direction of network participants. I have found in my own work on ethnic networks as forms of social capital that the same tight community connections that promote the upward mobility and academic achievement of young people also penalize nonconformity. In other words, social capital is a mechanism for mobilization and social control. Communities that can mobilize and control their members can indeed engage in many constructive activities, but they also tend toward conformity in expression and behavior. We probably want high levels of social capital and high levels of conformity in some of our institutions, such as the military. Within families and many types of associations, limitations on individual freedom are often desirable. If a university is to be a forum for the open and free exchange of ideas, though, it must be a low social capital institution.  Individuals in a university may be highly committed to their ideas and goals, but these must be their ideas and goals, not those approved and promoted by the institution.  From the perspective of a traditional liberal education, colleges and universities are exactly where we should not be making blueprints for building social capital.

For a university or college to become a community of faith, as it must if it is to adopt promulgating civic engagement as its mission, it has to set up tenets of orthodoxy.  Someone has to decide what constitutes appropriate “engagement.”  The institution may be relatively lenient in enforcement of doctrine and reluctantly tolerate heretics, but it cannot fulfill its mission without trying to get students and faculty to fall into line and march in the right direction.  It is entirely appropriate for a religious organization to call its adherents to become soldiers of the faith. But few things are more inconsistent with the intellectual freedom essential to a university than the expectation that its students and faculty will become social missionaries.  A regime of social commitment discourages intellectual diversity, even if it does not openly forbid it…

Universities and colleges can make available to students advanced intellectual skills, in abstract reasoning and analysis. They can provide access to practical skills and to the cultural heritage of humanity.  They can furnish forums for sharing ideas from all perspectives.  But we put the things these institutions can do at risk if we make education a vehicle for a committee’s vision of social reconstruction. The incorporation of a mandated social creed into the “mission statements” of institutions limits the operation of reason. Directing all courses of study along lines that an administration or a task force have decided serve the mission of social reconstruction subordinate the teaching of practical skills and the humanities to ideological direction. Most importantly, perhaps, civic action that derives from an institutional program, rather than from undirected individual decision, contradicts not only the principle of intellectual freedom, but the essential character of liberal democracy.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Spending and the Debt Continue

The Growth of Federal Spending
Like most other people who have family incomes below $450,000, I was happy that Congress avoided the looming large increase in my taxes, even though, like most other people, I will be paying more in payroll taxes in the coming year. Short-term self-interest aside, though, I’m not so pleased that the agreement did nothing to solve the underlying problems of the American economy. Congress had created the prospect of returning to higher tax rates and making sharp cuts in spending in order to force it to deal with the worsening problem of spending exceeding revenues in ever-increasing amounts. But it did not cut spending and the deficit continues to threaten the nation’s future. Soon, Congress will face the prospect of raising the debt ceiling in order to continue borrowing money to cover its obligations. If Washington does not commit itself to a plan to bring spending down, the nation will face a steadily worsening future. We should no longer see the cutting of entitlements as a matter of ideology or political preference, but as a matter of economic necessity.
One of the best sources of information on the debt issue is the website US Government Debt. The following chart, showing the increase in debt over recent years and projected debt in the near future is taken from there. While the recent recession has worsened the problem by limiting economic growth, I think it clearly has its roots in a much longer-term phenomenon: the steady growth of government spending.

As the next chart, taken from the same source, shows, government spending has increased dramatically over the past century. There were, of course, huge and understandable bumps during both of the World Wars, but it is notable that each war was followed by a level of spending higher than before the war and that this is especially true of the years that followed World War II.
Total Spe-x=Transfer to state and local; Total Spe-f=Federal Direct Spending; Total Spe-s=State direct spending; Total Spe-l=Local direct spending

Note from this last chart that not only has government spending grown overall, but most of the growth has come from the federal portion, which has replaced local sources as the primary public spender. The historian Paul Kennedy argued, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), that powerful nations tend to bring about their own decline by overextending themselves economically. Kennedy was thinking primarily about the overstretch of military activities, but I think the idea also applies to the domestic activities of states. As central governments extend themselves abroad, they also tend to reach into more areas of domestic life and to become over-committed to solving all problems at home through ever more expensive programs and elaborate bureaucracies. Beyond the obvious need to bring down spending, then, we might consider the need for a more thorough retrenchment to avoid the progress toward national decadence.