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History Lesson

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From observing "the flow of events over the past decade,'' especially the recent populist uprisings in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, he concludes that the great ideological struggle in the world is over, and the West has won. Western liberal democracy has triumphed as the "final form of human government.''

If Fukuyama is correct, that's the good news. The bad news is that even in this liberal democracy (the world's greatest), justice, fairness, and equity remain elusive ideals. As history also teaches, governments, bureaucracies, and social systems are extremely resistant to change. For some recent examples, one need look no farther than this issue's "Current Events.''

Fed up with a school system in constant disarray and angry over the ninth teachers' strike in 18 years, Chicago parents organized and launched a populist reform movement in the fall of 1987 that turned the city's educational system upside down. Their demands jolted the state legislature into action and culminated this fall with the election of citizen councils of parents, teachers, and community representatives to govern each of the district's 540 schools.

In Edgewood v. Kirby, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state's method of financing public education is unconstitutional because it does not provide the "efficient system of public free schools'' mandated by the state Constitution. Behind that vague phrase is a stunning inequity: The amount of money spent annually per student ranges from about $2,000 in the poorest districts to more than $19,000 in the wealthiest.

Courts in Montana and Kentucky took similar actions for the same reasons this past year, and there are school-finance lawsuits under way in at least nine other states.

New Jersey is another state where citizens and educators have been waging a schoolfinance battle in the courts. In October, the state seized control of Jersey City's schools, declaring them "academically bankrupt.'' Severe financial problems undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the state's second-largest school district. But state officials concluded (after a four-year investigation) that the main cause was longstanding political corruption and shameful negligence by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Finally, there is the encouraging example of Rochester, N.Y., where the impetus for change came from within. In the spring of 1987, the teachers, superintendent, and school board negotiated a contract so radical that it made (and continues to make) national news. Confronted with the seemingly intractable problems that confront most major city school districts, Rochester set out to restructure the system.

Now, well into the last year of the contract, Rochester is assessing its progress and beginning negotiations on a new contract. Participants in this bold undertaking have made gains, but they are also discovering how painfully difficult it is to change the status quo--even when there is a widespread commitment to improve the system.

Aren't these actions in themselves proof that entrenched systems will eventually yield to persistent effort? To some degree. But that is small comfort to those who must live with the inequity in the meantime. Parents and educators in Texas had been fighting their battle in the courts for more than two decades. In New Jersey, they have struggled for more than 13 years. And even now, after decades of discontent, Chicago, Jersey City, Edgewood, and Rochester are really just beginning to make progress. And these are places where people are trying.

It all brings to mind something Robert F. Kennedy once said: "Progress is a nice word, but change is its motivator, and change has its enemies.'' That's another lesson that history teaches.

--Ronald A. Wolk

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