The Liberal Plot against American Education

I am usually skeptical about conspiracy theories, but American education's sorrowful state has increasingly pushed me in that direction. Some background: I've analyzed K-12 schooling for years and observed an odd pattern: We increasingly spend billions to improve it (with much of the increase directed toward uplifting blacks and Hispanics), but progress is miniscule. Setting aside sheer stupidity as an explanation, this blatant wastefulness is a prime candidate for a nefarious "dark forces" account. But more importantly, if this is indeed something other than stupidity (or the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the like)...then could it be a "whodunit"?

My first inclination was to round up the usual suspects: liberals. After all, all the outward signs of the "crime" point to this familiar culprit. There is the usual hasty fiscal extravagance, a muddle-brained potpourri of unreachable aims, the reflexive expansion of state power, and a commitment to "progress," absent boundaries. More telling, there is the signature dependency-for-life outcome where youngsters migrate from one government program to the next. But would this circumstantial evidence warrant a grand jury indictment, let alone a conviction? Harder evidence was required: if not a smoking gun, then at least a theory of the crime (to use some prosecutorial lingo).

A dot-connecting "eureka" moment occurred when I read a November 29, 2009 New York Times editorial titled "Over-Punishment in Schools." In an instant, I now possessed a valuable clue -- an Exhibit A -- to offer the jury to demonstrate how liberals are intentionally destroying American education so as to "help" minorities.

The editorial claimed that increased school policing (as opposed to informal intervention by principals or guidance counselors who consult parents) is disproportionally hindering the education of blacks and Hispanics. To wit, "[c]hildren who are singled out for arrest and suspension are at greater risk of dropping out and becoming permanently entangled with the criminal justice system. It is especially troublesome that these children tend to be disproportionately black and Hispanic, and have emotional problems or learning disabilities." The editorial then praised a New York City proposal ensuring greater accountability and transparency in school discipline while making it easier for parents, students, and teachers to lodge complaints against school security officers.

Make no mistake -- the race/ethnic-related pattern in school discipline is genuine and widening. An Education Week (November 23, 2009) article summarized school suspension data by race and reported that from 1999 to 2000 and from 2007 to 2008, the overall suspension rate increased by 47%. More specifically, for whites, the rate declined by 5.4%; for blacks, it soared by 74.5%; and the figure for Hispanics was 114.7%. In 2007-2008, whites comprised 28.3% of all suspensions, while blacks made up 51.3% of the total. The data for expulsions are similar. Between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008, expulsions rose by 43.7%; and while this increase affected all groups, the rate for blacks was more than three times that of whites (the Hispanic increase was five times that of whites). And as one might predict, blacks were nearly half (45.7%) of those expelled. Actually, since local civil rights groups -- not to mention the ACLU -- are quick to protest strict disciplinary measures directed against blacks, especially by white teachers and administrators, these figures probably underestimate racial discrepancies.

This is pretty good proof of liberal intent. Begin with the obvious: Keeping troublemakers in school hinders learning for everyone, including African-Americans. Indeed, the single most effective cure for academic insufficiency is exiling all troublemakers, not rescuing them. Teachers can hardly teach when students loudly socialize or heap abuse on the teacher or annoy classmates inclined to learn. Why attend a school with rampant bullying or threats of bodily injury? Moreover, faced with numerous troublemakers, prudent teachers just keep a lid on school violence by ignoring petty transgressions (e.g., classroom cell phone use). And forget about high academic standards, since these might keep miscreants a year longer or instigate disruptive demonstrations. 

All the transparency and "fairness" demanded by the Times further undermine education by adding yet more administrative burdens to schools already challenged in performing basic bureaucratic functions, let alone properly instructing their students. We are talking about schools struggling with compiling honest enrollment figures, accurate graduation statistics, and updated student information, to say nothing of tracking books and equipment. Now, with the threat of legal action hanging over their heads, hard-pressed school administrators will have to document disciplinary procedures to withstand assaults from self-appointed "community activists" and ACLU-type lawyers convinced that due process outranks learning.

In fact, to avoid a financially ruinous class action lawsuit, schools may now impose court-like judicial proceedings, complete with written transcripts, multiple witnesses, and similar time-consuming procedures that must inevitably undermine the school's core mission. So rather than immediately expel someone who hit a teacher, wise school administrators, like doctors fearing frivolous malpractice suits, will instead generate paperwork as the first line of defense. And rest assured that troublemakers will soon notice and exploit this paralysis. Teaching becomes a game to avoid the problems that inevitably occur when imposing the law and order vital to imparting knowledge.

Further forget about attracting dedicated teachers to troubled schools. Experienced, capable teachers enjoy multiple opportunities, but who would willingly teach at a school where establishing discipline can become a risky bureaucratic nightmare? What teacher wants every action put under the legal microscope? Only about-to-retire zombie lifers might survive in such settings. 

It should be equally obvious that this self-imposed destruction of learning is also a windfall for those feeding off the education colossus. It is, ladies and gentleman, the Great Society incarnate. With troublemakers enjoying near-diplomatic immunity from punishment, schools have no choice but to hire armies of workers to mitigate their impact...and as in any well-formulated, government-financed, make-work scheme, everyone receives a turn at the trough. There will be more social workers, mental health counselors, anti-violence program supervisors and coordinators, role models, and mentors for at-risk students, right on down to more janitors skilled in graffiti removal, school safety officers, technicians to repair vandalized surveillance equipment, classroom assistants to keep an eye on the mischief-makers, and whatever else it takes to staff these prison-like schools. Some experts have demanded special training so teachers can "understand" the troubled world of these miscreants. Put bluntly, keeping a few criminally inclined students in school regardless of the damage can probably feed countless families who might otherwise go unemployed.

These extra bodies necessary for maintain dangerous schools are also a windfall for the Democratic Party and its expand-the-state policies. Bloated school payrolls guarantee more dues-paying members to education unions like the NEA and AFT, both central to Democratic fundraising and voting drives. (These unions also supply many delegates to the party's presidential nominating convention.) They are also a ready-made voter base for erstwhile "education" mayors and governors "committed to helping the children" who all the while push government farther into fiscal insolvency.

So can any reasonable person honestly believe that liberals are sincerely committed to improving American education when they insist that chronic, often violent troublemakers should be kept in school at all costs? Nobody can be that stupid -- not even those who write editorials for the New York Times.

Robert Weissberg is Professor Emeritus of political science at University of Illinois-Urbana.
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