Education and the Civil City

In Indianapolis today, there is no single issue as contentious as education. Even crime takes a back seat..

In Indianapolis today, no issue is as contentious as education.  Just ask Pat Rooney.

I  tell my students that four conditions are necessary to the creation of good public policy:  agreement on the legal principles involved; agreement on the facts; common goals; and consensus on strategies for achieving those goals. When the discussion turns to public education, none of those conditions is present. 

Voucher proponents believe the First Amendment allows the use of public dollars for parochial schools, a belief legal scholars consider dubious. Critics of public education believe the schools (especially IPS) are massive failures; others cite mounting evidence that public schools do just as well as private ones when dealing with the same students.  There isn’t even agreement on goals: the Chamber wants better trained workers; colleges  want more critical thinkers; and those of us concerned with democratic institutions and civil society want schools that transmit American values and avoid balkanization of the citizenry.

Thanks in large measure to the rhetoric accompanying these issues, the electorate is polarized and angry about public education.  The candidates for Mayor are falling over each other to offer prescriptions for change, prompting charges of hypocrisy because the Mayor has no authority over the schools.

What should the next Mayor do?

There is certainly political wisdom in a decision to respect jurisdictional boundaries and leave the schools alone. That said, the quality of education is an important aspect of the quality of life in any city, and the mayor cannot turn a blind eye to the problems of our schools. Fortunately, there are plenty of things a mayor can do to help without usurping the role of the elected school board.

Consider: the single most significant predictor of school success is economic status. This is not to suggest that poor children cannot learn, nor is it an “excuse” for poor test scores. It is simply common-sense recognition that children who come to school hungry, who suffer from urban asthma or lead poisoning, who were up all night listening to neighborhood gunfire or battling parents, who come without warm clothes in winter, are not ready to learn until their basic needs are met. Children who move every few months, whose parents do not own books or read newspapers (if they even have one or both parents in the home) face formidable barriers to academic achievement.

The next mayor can improve public education by reducing those barriers—by providing improved public health services to poorer neighborhoods; by abating lead and other environmental toxins; and by working with the schools to address the social problems  that prevent learning.

The next mayor can also use the “bully pulpit” of the mayor’s office to celebrate the numerous successes that do occur in our public schools every day. A substantial part of the “crisis in public education” is really a crisis of confidence. The next mayor can ease that crisis or—like our current Mayor–exacerbate it.  The candidates who want our votes need to tell us which path they plan to take.