The Burbs Revisited

| Wed May 20, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

Education blogger Kevin Carey is unhappy with me:

As a rule I enjoy Kevin Drum's blog at Mother Jones. But his occasional forays into education generally descend into naysaying and pessimism — Kevin's one all-purpose insight on the subject is that education policy is hard and as such not worth trying to solve.

I plead mostly guilty to this.  In fact, Kevin C. is being polite.  Not only do I think that education policy is hard, I think it's an absolute cesspool with very little to show for decades of effort.  In my defense, though, I don't think that means it isn't worth trying to solve education problems.  I just think that most claims to have done so turn out on inspection to be seriously overblown.

Take the post in question.  I argued that suburban parents are basically selfish SOBs who will never allow anything more than very modest levels of integration with urban school districts and will fight like crazed weasels to protect their own leafy citadels of learning.  Kevin C. disagrees.  I think.  He suggests that even suburban parents harbor some altruistic impulses, but then immediately admits that "when asked, parents will jealously guard the resources available to their own children."  Here's his solution:

So the key thing is to not ask.  For example, back when I worked on education funding in Indiana, we created a formula that allowed local school districts to keep all of the revenue they generated through property taxes, but then distributed state funds inversely to local property wealth, equalizing the overall funding level. The effect was to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue from the wealthiest school districts to the poorest. But because that transfer occured in the context of an immensely complex formula understood by less than half a dozen people and negotiated in a back room long after the official hearings had finished and the press had gone home, nobody really got upset by it, because nobody knew exactly how much money they were losing, and we were in no hurry to tell them.

The point being, sometimes too much information is detrimental to fair public policy. States that have tried to explicitly transfer local property wealth between districts have had a horrible time of it, because the extent of the redistribution was too obvious. Sometimes it's better to hide the true extent of people's contributions to the common good. Otherwise they'll start asking questions and from there it's a slippery slope all the way back to every family huddling alone in a cave and foraging for fruits and nuts.

I'm not sure a rebuttal is even necessary.  It sounds to me like Kevin C. is agreeing that suburban parents will protect their schools like crazed weasels, and the only way to overcome this is to lie to them early and often.  And he thinks I'm the pessimistic one?

UPDATE: Richard Kahlenberg is unhappy with me too.  I don't blame him, really.  But as much as I respect both of these guys, neither of their counterarguments strikes me as very persuasive.  Lying to parents just isn't a long-term strategy, and the fact that urban/suburban transfers have worked in a very small number of special cases isn't evidence that it will scale well.

Besides, there's another problem here that no one mentions.  Even if you have a great system of urban magnet schools and urban/suburban transfers, what happens to the urban non-magnet schools?  They lose all their best students either to the magnets or to open spots in the suburbs, and the suburban kids are only transferring in to the magnets.  This means that the non-magnets end up with a worse student body than before.  The net result might still be positive, but the majority of urban schools are actually worse off.

Again, I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I continue to think that programs like KIPP or Green Dot that are just flatly aimed at improving urban schools are a more promising bet than counting on urban/suburban partnerships.

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