The Theft of Education

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, May 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Theft of Education


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Some years ago in Chicago, I saw a local television report about a particularly poignant phenomenon labeled "theft of education." It bristled with middle-class anxiety that poor blacks were escaping from the inner city and invading schools where they did not belong. Domestic servants had apparently been using their employers' addresses to enroll their children in schools in suburbs like Winnetka. They were lying! was the gist of this report. They were stealing tax dollars! They were raiding the Chicken Coop of Knowledge! It was sad, the images of those children at the train station, their books scattered, their way blocked as guards demanding proof of residence pressed them back onto the trains.

Not long after that, I remember seeing news about a scandal in Rockford, Illinois, a mostly white working-class town just west of Chicago, where in recent times, black and Hispanic families have moved in search of better lives. The school board was accused of intentional systemic racial segregation. A lawsuit was filed, People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, and in 1993 a magistrate found that black students were assigned to separate, unequally equipped facilities; that regardless of test scores and grades, white students (some "below the national mean") had been tracked into separate "gifted" and honors programs and blacks (some "who scored in the ninety-ninth percentile") tracked into "remedial" and basic programs. Even ostensibly "integrated" schools maintained segregated classrooms, entrances, bathrooms and lunchtimes. The magistrate ordered a variety of remedies, including that schools be integrated; that gifted classes admit black students whose test scores qualify them; and that the racial composition of regular classes reflect that of the school at large.

The school board appealed and on this past April 15, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed key parts of the magistrate's remedial order. The opinion, written by Judge Richard Posner, says a number of remarkable things: As for the order to desegregate, he writes that "making it more difficult to identify particular schools as `white'or `black' (or Hispanic)" is of but "conjectural benefit" to minority students. He throws out a study purporting to show that regardless of socioeconomic status, white students outperformed black students, ostensibly as a consequence of the board's discriminatory educational policies. Saying that the study failed to consider other salient variables -- "the well-documented scholastic achievements of the children of poor immigrants would have to be ascribed to discrimination in favor of immigrants," he writes with no apparent irony-posner goes on to rule that it has "no value as causal explanation and is therefore inadmissible." Indeed, he says that the study is "implausible."

His insistence on such objectivity breaks down completely, however, when he comes to that part of the decree forbidding the school district to "refer a higher percentage of minority students than of white students for discipline unless the district purges all `subjective' criteria from its disciplinary code." Posner declares that disciplinary criteria "are unavoidably judgmental" and that such constraints on subjectivity are "racial disciplinary quotas," teaching an unedifying lesson of racial entitlements. …

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