President Bush's bipartisan education reform initiative, The No Child Left Behind Act, has increased public school education spending by 40 percent and has provided more funds to poor children than any other education bill in this country's history.
So why is the secretary of education, Rod Paige, so upset?
"The most egregious issue that we must confront as a minority is the achievement gap between the performance of minority kids and their peers," Paige said, while pacing behind a long lacquered table in his downtown D.C. office.
According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading. The major implication being that four decades after Brown v. Board of Education, our public schools remain unequal.
So why are black and Hispanic students performing far worse than white students? Part of the problem is bound up in economic segregation. Since public school districts mirror housing patterns, economically segregated communities have produced economically segregated public schools. According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "More than 70 percent of the nation's black students now attend predominantly minority public schools."
In all likelihood, too many teachers in these schools believe that these poor students - mostly of color - cannot really do much better and so they tolerate a system with incredibly low achievement rates. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, was designed to redress this "soft bigotry of expectations." The education reform initiative holds entire schools accountable when subsets of students - defined by income, race, etc. - lag behind in test scores. The act would withhold large amounts of federal funding to those educational institutions that are failing to properly educate their students. At the same time, the Senate recently approved a private-school voucher program for D.C. parents. Both plans represent a fundamental policy shift toward holding perpetually dysfunctional public schools accountable for their failures. (The standard tact had been to reward underachieving schools with more money.)
A former superintendent in the Houston public school system, Paige has long been at the forefront of the movement to increase educational options for underprivileged students. The reason for his support is straightforward: "Any efficiency expert would say the wider the choice, the better the efficiency. The same thing goes for educational systems. What motivation do public school administrators have for improvement without competition? But if parents can take their children somewhere else to learn, now administrators are going to get off their butts and make sure things are done right."
A 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 70 percent of American blacks under the age of 35 support vouchers. For many of these families, vouchers offer the only way out of urban school systems.
"It's a disheartening situation," says Paige, who criticizes our so-called civil rights leaders - the Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons and Eleanor Norton Holmes - for opposing school vouchers. "It's an issue of the politics being more important to them then the impact it's having on the children."
Paige isn't surprised that black Americans overwhelmingly support school vouchers. "African-Americans are smart! Don't underestimate the interest in African-American and Hispanic mothers about their children, regardless of their economic status. For them it has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with making things better for their children. ... If I can take extraordinary measures and experiment with new ways to save the life of a child I'm going to do that."
The same goes for D.C. mayor, Anthony Williams, who has absorbed heaps of scorn for abandoning his opposition to vouchers and backing the D.C. pilot program. Critics accused Williams of selling out to the Bush administration. Williams offered a more honest assessment: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We've been doing the same thing over and over in terms of our approach to education in this country and we need a new approach which is geared toward increasing educational options. Why should we continue to have segregated lousy schools for the poor? People should have a choice as to where they get their education."
Providing children with a decent education is something we can do to haul our society along. We may not be able to end all inequality; but we can, as individuals, demand that our underprivileged children have options when it comes to the single greatest instrument of empowerment - education. This is the rather straightforward goal of men like Secretary Paige and Mayor Williams. And it is the next great battleground in the fight for social equality.