The New Politics of Race and Gender: The 1992 Yearbook of the Politics of Education Association

By Catherine Marshall | Go to book overview

PART 2:

ISSUES OF RACE IN THE MIDST OF REFORM

7

Race and the liberal perspective in Chicago school reform

G. Alfred Hess, Jr.

The traditional liberal perspective is characterized by egalitarian and compassionate concerns. Mid-twentieth century liberal strategies focused on the uses of centralized governmental authority to overcome local prejudice and nicely meshed with early century reforms towards a centralized, depoliticized professional bureaucratic governance structure. Chicago is symbolic of a new trend towards decentralized governance designed to address the continuing inequalities in education after decades of implementing ineffective centralized strategies. This chapter examines the conditions that gave rise to the Chicago reform approach and explores its relationship to traditional liberal perspectives.

With a few exceptional periods, the first eight decades of the twentieth century have been marked by policies reflecting the liberal perspective, particularly in the realm of public education. Matching the development of rationalized and depoliticized public management that saw the rise of town managers, public education developed a professionalized school bureaucracy and universities correspondingly developed departments of educational administration (Katz 1992). Later, at mid-century, school desegregation dominated the social issues of the 1950s and 1960s, as ‘separate but equal’ was overturned by Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In the late 1960s, in line with the philosophy of the federal government’s war on poverty, compensatory funding to offset the disadvantages of poverty or special conditions of children became an accepted mechanism to broaden access to equality of educational opportunity.

One of the central precepts of the liberal political strategies of the middle of the twentieth century was that local interests regularly denied the civil rights and equality of opportunity of minorities. From this perspective, perhaps founded in the perception that racial bias was far more virulent in the South than in other regions of the United States, it was a logical strategy to rely upon the imposition of directives (judicial, legislative and executive) from higher, more centralized jurisdictions to overcome local prejudices. From this mindset grew a massive civil rights strategy, rooted in the us Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka, elements of which are still relevant in arenas such as securing finance equity among school districts in a state. 1 But, as the extent of Northern racial bias was revealed in Chicago and other cities in the late 1960s and as the national handles of power were assumed by those with less concern for equality for all Americans, the understanding that ‘centralized’ meant ‘more progressive’ and ‘local’ meant ‘more unequal’ was discarded by many who worked in America’s cities.

The 1980s witnessed a turning of the political tide, as more conservative forces took control of federal policymaking in reaction to the perceived failures of the liberal social agenda. The success of public education was also called into question. The National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) said we were ‘a nation at risk’ and bemoaned the ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in our schools. The attack on the failures of the mid-century liberal strategies did not just come from the right, however. By the end of the decade, Jonathan Kozol, one of the dramatists of school failure in the 1960s

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