How 'My Brother's Keeper' Stands to Destroy Already Bad Schools

Though the Obama presidency has years to go, he has already initiated his legacy project. It’s called My Brother’s Keeper and attempts to help “at risk” young men of color – those prone to crime, mayhem, drug addiction, and fathering illegitimate children.  Clearly a worthy cause, and it has already attracted $150 million in private support.  The goal also seems reasonable, since unruly young men (regardless of color) have long troubled society and cures abound thanks to eons of experience.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that Obama’s putative cure is a modern-day Progressive nightmare.  It will fail while further generating government make-work jobs, and most importantly, it will hurt the education of millions of minority children.

This awaiting nightmare is hardly hidden, and tellingly, everything starts with more government jobs.  

A presidential task force, chaired by the cabinet secretary, Broderick Johnson, will seek to expand opportunity via an interagency effort.  Federal programs, policies, and regulations will be reviewed to assess their impact on young men of color, and when the evaluations are complete, recommendations will be offered to federal, state, and local governments plus the private sector to promote positive outcomes.  Like Talmudic scholars perusing the Torah for wisdom, it is assumed that digging deeper into government edicts will reveal the insights necessary to turn lives around.

The task is huge.  In the 1980s, it was estimated that the federal criminal code itself, just one part of all federal statutes, consumed 23,000 pages, and nobody knows how many other laws and regulations exist.  State/local laws and regulations may double or triple this number.  Perhaps all the at-risk young men should receive intensive legal training and told to mine the thousands of statutes and regulations looking for solutions to their personal tribulations.

The Department of Education will then have a “what works” website to disseminate these uncovered solutions.  Best practices in hand, this Task Force will then coordinate efforts with myriad government and private officials to help implement recommendations.

But, lofty intentions aside, how does one determine whether a specific law negatively impacts young men of color and how it should be altered?  Months could be spent debating the impact of minimum wage requirements on employment or whether draconian anti-discrimination laws hurt intended beneficiaries.  These are only two of myriad quandaries to be settled, and keep in mind that professional economists who have long studied these issues often disagree.  

Oddly, President Obama insists that this labor-intensive exegesis is cost-free.  He conceivably believes that future saving from lower incarceration rates, etc., etc. will offset today’s expenditures, but the calculations behind these beliefs have gone unmentioned.

Scrutinizing statutes is not the place to find solutions.  The historical record suggests far easier-to-implement remedies: tougher punishment for misbehavior (including corporal punishment), public shame and humiliation, letting teachers exert greater authority (and immunity from lawsuits), hiring more police, exiling troublemakers to reform or military schools, and even mandatory energy-draining forced labor (“boot camps”).  But punitive measures are unspeakable.  In fact, punishment is now denigrated as “negative reinforcement.”

Religious groups also have stellar records for rescuing youngsters from crime and depravity (see here).  For decades, discipline-minded inner-city Catholic schools performed wonders with sassy youngsters more inclined to pick fights than learn Latin.  What about hiring ex-military drill instructors as teachers to crack the whip?  None of this quite reasonable menu is part of My Brother’s Keeper.

This Kafkaesque tale now grows worse.  Surely one might consult untold parents and schoolteachers who have succeeded in reforming delinquent teenagers.  What about coaches who know a thing or two about getting troublemakers to shape up?  Not on Obama’s menu.  Instead, the president will meet with such “experts” on adolescent discipline as Magic Johnson; Adam Silver of the NBA; Thomas Tull of Legendary Entertainment ( a black-themed video company); Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; General Colin Powell; Don Thompson, CEO of McDonalds; and Ken Chenault, Chairman of American Express, plus multiple other high-profile notables, none of whom claims any special expertise in dealing with out-of-control young men of color.       

The damage is far greater than yet again wasting millions of taxpayer money.  This Progressive fantasy is a cure a hundred times worse than the disease.

Paralleling the “best practices” quest is a campaign to help keep these miscreants in school despite their unruly behavior.  Yes, Junior may disrupt the class, terrify his teacher, and otherwise prevent classmates from learning, but everything possible should be done to keep him marching toward graduation.  Diploma in hand, he will – supposedly – join the workforce, eschew criminality, and pay his taxes.  A diploma is now a magic piece of paper.

To this end, the Obama administration (particularly the DOJ) is doing everything possible to lighten the punishment of young men of color.  Obama himself has called for ending the “zero tolerance” policy common in many schools since blacks disproportionately are guilty of infractions.  Similarly, the Justice Department now regularly sues school districts over racial inequalities in suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary measures.  It just assumes that all groups commit offenses in equal proportions, so disparities merely reflect racial discrimination.  The attorney general has also called for de-criminalizing low-level nonviolent active drug dealings.

Easing up on discipline and substituting social work-like measures will, almost guaranteed, make already troubled schools even worse.  It is bizarre to insist, as a report from the Atlantic Philanthropies argues, that keeping miscreants in school will narrow the black/white achievement gap (the report calls for building more “trusting, supportive relationships between students and educators” to cut school anarchy).  More likely, social promotions will soar, and academics will suffer, so as not to discourage those disinclined to learn.  Teachers will spend even more time struggling to maintain order, well-mannered students will receive minimal instruction, better teachers will flee to safer settings, and whole neighborhoods will deteriorate as schools become centers for delinquent behavior.  And closing “bad schools” will only relocate the mayhem elsewhere.  In sum, this “help” will be a gigantic step backward, especially for decent, impoverished students trapped in inner-city schools.

Who could possibly support such a costly doomed-to-fail measure that undermines the education of countless poor blacks and Hispanics?  The answer is several elite philanthropic foundations – notably the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, The Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The Kapor Center for Social Impact.  This will also, obviously, be a bonanza for civil service unions – hardly a surprise.

Why all the misguided support?  Over and above generic foolishness, let me suggest that foundations' officials are basically political animals, who know that enlisting in the president’s program is good politics regardless of outcome or cost.  The IRS does not care about whether a foundation spends wisely – only whether it adheres to the tax code.  Surely no philanthropists will personally suffer financially or have their children attend violence-infested schools.  It’s all about keeping Obama happy, and who cares about the millions of poor inner-city kids who will learn even less, thanks to job-creation masquerading as helping the “at-risk”?

Though the Obama presidency has years to go, he has already initiated his legacy project. It’s called My Brother’s Keeper and attempts to help “at risk” young men of color – those prone to crime, mayhem, drug addiction, and fathering illegitimate children.  Clearly a worthy cause, and it has already attracted $150 million in private support.  The goal also seems reasonable, since unruly young men (regardless of color) have long troubled society and cures abound thanks to eons of experience.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that Obama’s putative cure is a modern-day Progressive nightmare.  It will fail while further generating government make-work jobs, and most importantly, it will hurt the education of millions of minority children.

This awaiting nightmare is hardly hidden, and tellingly, everything starts with more government jobs.  

A presidential task force, chaired by the cabinet secretary, Broderick Johnson, will seek to expand opportunity via an interagency effort.  Federal programs, policies, and regulations will be reviewed to assess their impact on young men of color, and when the evaluations are complete, recommendations will be offered to federal, state, and local governments plus the private sector to promote positive outcomes.  Like Talmudic scholars perusing the Torah for wisdom, it is assumed that digging deeper into government edicts will reveal the insights necessary to turn lives around.

The task is huge.  In the 1980s, it was estimated that the federal criminal code itself, just one part of all federal statutes, consumed 23,000 pages, and nobody knows how many other laws and regulations exist.  State/local laws and regulations may double or triple this number.  Perhaps all the at-risk young men should receive intensive legal training and told to mine the thousands of statutes and regulations looking for solutions to their personal tribulations.

The Department of Education will then have a “what works” website to disseminate these uncovered solutions.  Best practices in hand, this Task Force will then coordinate efforts with myriad government and private officials to help implement recommendations.

But, lofty intentions aside, how does one determine whether a specific law negatively impacts young men of color and how it should be altered?  Months could be spent debating the impact of minimum wage requirements on employment or whether draconian anti-discrimination laws hurt intended beneficiaries.  These are only two of myriad quandaries to be settled, and keep in mind that professional economists who have long studied these issues often disagree.  

Oddly, President Obama insists that this labor-intensive exegesis is cost-free.  He conceivably believes that future saving from lower incarceration rates, etc., etc. will offset today’s expenditures, but the calculations behind these beliefs have gone unmentioned.

Scrutinizing statutes is not the place to find solutions.  The historical record suggests far easier-to-implement remedies: tougher punishment for misbehavior (including corporal punishment), public shame and humiliation, letting teachers exert greater authority (and immunity from lawsuits), hiring more police, exiling troublemakers to reform or military schools, and even mandatory energy-draining forced labor (“boot camps”).  But punitive measures are unspeakable.  In fact, punishment is now denigrated as “negative reinforcement.”

Religious groups also have stellar records for rescuing youngsters from crime and depravity (see here).  For decades, discipline-minded inner-city Catholic schools performed wonders with sassy youngsters more inclined to pick fights than learn Latin.  What about hiring ex-military drill instructors as teachers to crack the whip?  None of this quite reasonable menu is part of My Brother’s Keeper.

This Kafkaesque tale now grows worse.  Surely one might consult untold parents and schoolteachers who have succeeded in reforming delinquent teenagers.  What about coaches who know a thing or two about getting troublemakers to shape up?  Not on Obama’s menu.  Instead, the president will meet with such “experts” on adolescent discipline as Magic Johnson; Adam Silver of the NBA; Thomas Tull of Legendary Entertainment ( a black-themed video company); Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; General Colin Powell; Don Thompson, CEO of McDonalds; and Ken Chenault, Chairman of American Express, plus multiple other high-profile notables, none of whom claims any special expertise in dealing with out-of-control young men of color.       

The damage is far greater than yet again wasting millions of taxpayer money.  This Progressive fantasy is a cure a hundred times worse than the disease.

Paralleling the “best practices” quest is a campaign to help keep these miscreants in school despite their unruly behavior.  Yes, Junior may disrupt the class, terrify his teacher, and otherwise prevent classmates from learning, but everything possible should be done to keep him marching toward graduation.  Diploma in hand, he will – supposedly – join the workforce, eschew criminality, and pay his taxes.  A diploma is now a magic piece of paper.

To this end, the Obama administration (particularly the DOJ) is doing everything possible to lighten the punishment of young men of color.  Obama himself has called for ending the “zero tolerance” policy common in many schools since blacks disproportionately are guilty of infractions.  Similarly, the Justice Department now regularly sues school districts over racial inequalities in suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary measures.  It just assumes that all groups commit offenses in equal proportions, so disparities merely reflect racial discrimination.  The attorney general has also called for de-criminalizing low-level nonviolent active drug dealings.

Easing up on discipline and substituting social work-like measures will, almost guaranteed, make already troubled schools even worse.  It is bizarre to insist, as a report from the Atlantic Philanthropies argues, that keeping miscreants in school will narrow the black/white achievement gap (the report calls for building more “trusting, supportive relationships between students and educators” to cut school anarchy).  More likely, social promotions will soar, and academics will suffer, so as not to discourage those disinclined to learn.  Teachers will spend even more time struggling to maintain order, well-mannered students will receive minimal instruction, better teachers will flee to safer settings, and whole neighborhoods will deteriorate as schools become centers for delinquent behavior.  And closing “bad schools” will only relocate the mayhem elsewhere.  In sum, this “help” will be a gigantic step backward, especially for decent, impoverished students trapped in inner-city schools.

Who could possibly support such a costly doomed-to-fail measure that undermines the education of countless poor blacks and Hispanics?  The answer is several elite philanthropic foundations – notably the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, The Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The Kapor Center for Social Impact.  This will also, obviously, be a bonanza for civil service unions – hardly a surprise.

Why all the misguided support?  Over and above generic foolishness, let me suggest that foundations' officials are basically political animals, who know that enlisting in the president’s program is good politics regardless of outcome or cost.  The IRS does not care about whether a foundation spends wisely – only whether it adheres to the tax code.  Surely no philanthropists will personally suffer financially or have their children attend violence-infested schools.  It’s all about keeping Obama happy, and who cares about the millions of poor inner-city kids who will learn even less, thanks to job-creation masquerading as helping the “at-risk”?