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What's Wrong With The Schools

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Whenever I daydream about moving to a big city, The Schools stop me short. Private elementary school costs are sobering enough. But when I think about the other option--sending my children to a big-city public school--I shudder. Look at those schools, for God's sake--the ones in Boston, New York, Washington, and the rest. Their disintegration is one of the great tragedies of our time.

Who's to blame for the tragedy? You can talk all you want about the debilitating effects of busing or ill-equipped teachers, but to my mind, the most debilitating factor by far was the unwillingness of the white middle class, as a class, to do what it had always done: stand and fight to keep the public schools good. Once the middle class was gone, no mayor was going to get booted out of office because the schools were bad. No incompetent teacher had to worry about angry parents calling for his or her head "downtown.''

That means I'm to blame. I know in my soul that when I decided to stay in Northampton so that my children could go to school here, I was making the same moral choice that hundreds of thousands had before me. I was choosing not to stand and fight, too. Yes, I realize that the decline of the schools is not all my fault. And yes, I know that I am simply trying to do right by my children. Still, I've chosen to opt out, and there is no getting around that unpleasant little fact.

The main reason I and the rest of the white middle class fled, of course, is race, or more precisely, the complicated admixture of race and class and good intentions gone awry. The fundamental good intention--which even today, strikes one as both moral and right--was to integrate the public classroom, and in so doing, to equalize the resources available to all school children. However moral the intent, the result almost always was the same.

Before integration, the urban neighborhood schools of the white middle class were little havens of decent education, because middle-class parents knew how to manipulate the system and were willing to do so on behalf of their kids. They didn't much care what happened in the other public schools. When busing and judicial fiats made those safe havens untenable, the white middle class quickly discovered what the poor had always known: There weren't enough good teachers, decent equipment, and so forth to go around. Middle-class parents even had to start worrying about whether their kids were going to be mugged in school.

Faced with the deterioration of their children's education, middle-class parents essentially had two choices: They could stay and pour the energy that had once gone into improving the neighborhood school into improving the entire school system--a frightening task, to be sure. Or they could leave. Invariably, they chose the latter.

The black middle class, and even the black poor who were especially ambitious for their children, were getting out as fast as they could, too, though not to the suburbs. They headed mainly for the parochial schools, which subsequently became integration's great success story, even as the public schools became integration's great failure.

So what can be done? I think we have to start from the fact that the white middle class is not coming back. Although as a class they are largely responsible for a national disaster in education, each middle-class parent's personal, wrenching decision to move away from the big city public schools is understandable and ultimately forgivable. No parents are willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of their social principles. How can they? It's one thing to sacrifice yourself, but quite another to offer up your children, about whom you have overwhelming feelings of protection and in whom you invest your most deeply felt hopes and dreams.

It is also clear by now that the mostly poor parents with kids still in public school haven't picked up where the middle class left off. No, we have to find a way to replace the club of parental vigilance with some other, equally powerful force from outside the system. One possibility ought to be America's urban black leadership, which has been as much at fault as the white middle class. When have you ever heard a black politician talk openly about the shame of the schools? How many black school administrators are willing to back the major reforms that might help turn their schools around? In general, the black leadership has been more interested in perpetuating a system that provides political sinecures in the administration building and protects incompetence among the rank and file than in doing anything for the kids who are stuck in the schools. It would take only a few eloquent black voices to turn the state of the schools into the moral cause it ought to be.

Then there's the educational reform movement itself, which has gained considerable steam these past few years. The reforms have gained momentum because they seem so obviously right. It's criminal that the unions and the bureaucrats now regularly put their own interests ahead of their students. It's infuriating the way the whole system is designed to discourage better, more idealistic people from becoming teachers. The system has gotten warped, and the most important single thing the white middle class can do from the outside is to actively back the reforms that will unwarp it.

There is even a role model of sorts. I was living in Texas a few years ago when Ross Perot pushed through his school reform package. It was a magnificent accomplishment. O.K., none of us has Perot's money or his visibility, and not many of us have his energy. But we ought to at least have his passion. Since the white middle class is not going to return to the inner-city public schools anytime soon, it ought to feel a moral obligation to push for change from the outside, just as Perot did. In the end, that's the only decent way to expiate the guilt.

I fervently pray the day will come when the big city public schools get decent again. If that were to happen, I would gladly move back to the city and put my children in the schools. I would become an involved middle-class parent. In the meantime, I will watch closely from the sidelines, applauding when progress is made (when, say, Boston University takes over the Chelsea schools), grimacing when there are setbacks. But I also know that until they change, I won't be back. Yes, I've done the right thing for my kids, but I'll never, ever feel good about it. I'll always feel as if I'm an unindicted co-conspirator in the one great crime of my class.

Joseph Nocera is a contributing editor to Esquire and The Washington Monthly, where a longer version of this article appeared.

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