Martin Harris is an architect, and a property rights and education advocate.
Curiously enough, one of the best places to start if you're seeking an understanding of the substantial gap between educators and parents on the role-of-the-schools question, is with one Joel Kotkin, probably the only academic in the discipline of urban planning who somehow survives even though he openly disparages the politically-correct conventional wisdom which distills down to "cities = good, suburbs = bad" and declares low-density development or "sprawl" to signal (maybe even sooner than global warming?) the imminent end of civilization as we have known it. Kotkin's argument is simple: all the statistics of residency and development show that, contrary to planners' wisdom, Americans prefer suburban to urban or even rural living, and by overwhelming margins. A very large part of that preference traces back through the subtle (and not-so-subtle) variations among adjacent suburbs in terms of various indicators of socio-economic status (SES), to the local public schools where parents hope and expect that their children will be surrounded by the cultural behaviors commonly expected in the suburb of their choice, and will better learn their three R's in such congenial surroundings.
It's no secret, though not widely publicized, that the cultural-behavior surroundings parents seek for their kids aren't "diverse." There are whole sets of behaviors that parents who select a suburb (or, within a city, a neighborhood) wish to avoid when they choose to move into a particular town school district or neighborhood school sub-district. To a substantial extent, the variations in cultural behaviors correlate with family income levels, with in-school achievement, and with post-school outcomes.
Educators now want to counter these expectations by engaging in SES "integration" through mandatory enrollment mixing. Over-simplified, that's edu-speak for making sure that lower-income kids mix with higher-income kids in the classroom and on the playground, exactly what parents sought to avoid by moving to the suburb or neighborhood of their choice, for large reason in an effort to reduce their kids' exposure to what they perceive as negative cultural behaviors and the results of those behaviors.
Advocates of SES integration argue for increasing the exposure, but phrase it differently. "History suggests that separate schools for low- and middle-income students will never be equal," argues Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation think-tank. "Low-income students do better in middle-class schools." Presumably (he doesn't say) that's because low-income students are exposed (and absorb) middle-income cultural behaviors, which, in last issue's column, I labeled as "radiational aura."
But "radiational aura" works both ways, as parents of students at the Mount Abraham Union High School learned a score of years ago, when -- how can I phrase this analytically -- low-achievement students were solving their self-esteem problems by beating up high-achievement students as an after-school activity. Most parents choose to minimize their own kids' exposure to such instances of "radiational aura" or cultural behavior, which explains why so many politicians in Washington (even the left-leaners) and school superintendents (even in Vermont) send their own kids to private schools.
As you might expect, conservatives have a different take on the value of "radiational aura," either from upper- to lower-income students or vice versa. Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute argues that middle- and upper-income parents invest heavily in the task of "intensively overseeing kids' homework . . . and enrichment activities" -- in short, shaping cultural behaviors, and better parenting yields better school achievement and ultimately higher income -- dare I say socio-economic status -- and do it without "radiational aura" at school. They're not enthusiastic about having those at-home efforts diluted by at-school exposure to other sets of cultural behaviors. History shows they'll change their kids' schools to avoid it. *
"Civilizations die from suicide, not murder." --Arnold Toynbee