The Urban Plantation

Education, like the economy and terrorism, has been elevated to a national security problem. Unfortunately, the alarmist rhetoric is seldom matched by decisive action at the personal, municipal, or national level.

In the nation's capital, the president sends his kids to private schools. Such hypocrisy is affordable for the wealthy, but the average taxpayer, who exercises choice, pays twice: once for public schools and again for a private school where standards are higher and achievement more likely.

The blight in the District of Columbia infects higher education, too. The University of the District of Columbia has been in danger of losing accreditation and has one of the worst graduation rates in the country. D.C. public options are so bad that residents receive subsidies to pursue degrees in other states. Again, the taxpayer pays twice: for a sub-par college, and for subsidies that take serious students elsewhere. If public school teachers and administrators could be sued for malpractice, the schoolhouse might improve overnight.

The problems of D.C. are not unique; almost every big city in the country has an imploding public school system. The nexus of urban decay is single-party rule -- a political sinecure where the incentives for reform are few. The recent mayoral primary in the District of Columbia is a cautionary tale for reformers. Nomination is the equivalent of coronation in the nation's capital and elsewhere.

Unlike most urban Democrats, the incumbent, Adrian Fenty, was a genuine reformer. He actually hired a no-nonsense Education Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and gave her the power to fire teachers, relieve principals, and close failing schools. Ms. Rhee did all of these things at the risk of putting her boss out of work. Indeed, Mayor Fenty lost the recent Democrat primary. Ms. Rhee's days are probably numbered, too. Predictably, the local union has filled a suit to reinstate those 241 teachers fired for "poor performance."

When Fenty and Rhee touched the third rail of reform, the academic left mobilized. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Mary Cheh of the D.C. City Council made common cause. Weingarten is the antihero of Waiting for "Superman," a documentary about public education in which Variety claims she is cast as "a foaming satanic beast."

Ms. Cheh is an acerbic feminist and tenured lawyer at George Washington University. She is one of many double-dipping academics inside the Beltway, collecting six figures from both public and private troughs. Her most recent contributions to urban renewal were an earmark for an off-street parking lot in a posh neighborhood (Palisades) without an on-street parking problem and a citywide tax on soda pop.

The man they helped to elect was the incumbent D.C. City Council chair, Vincent Gray, a chap very likely to live up to his name. On Gray's watch, the prominent issues of concern to the Council were legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, and snarky license plates -- and taxing D.C. citizens, yet again, for their intemperate use of plastic bags. While on the D.C. City Council, Gray and Cheh public school reform has been pretty much limited to removing chocolate milk from lunch menus.

Icons of the past often foretell the future. Other Gray supporters included Marion ("the bitch set me up") Barry and Eleanor Holmes Norton. Barry is best known as a drug-addled Council member and former mayor. Delegate Norton and her Democrat majority in Congress killed the popular D.C. Voucher program that allowed over 3,300 lower-income children to escape the ghetto schools. Congresswoman Norton is also an ardent advocate of statehood for the District. Why the Congress would superimpose a state bureaucracy upon a dysfunctional municipality is still a mystery to most citizens outside the Beltway.

The dim prospect of genuine schoolhouse reform in cities like the District of Columbia is not just a local phenomenon. The national outlook is grim, too, in spite of all the disingenuous rhetoric in programs like the so-called "Race to the Top." Surely the administration will throw more money at the "problem," but that’s just piñata politics as usual.

When the academic Left brought the union big guns into the D.C. mayoral race, the president and the Secretary of Education went to ground. As Fenty and Rhee were getting mugged by teacher union money, the national Democratic leadership refused to campaign for real education reformers in their own party, in their own front yard. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are in danger of confirming a Chicago stereotype: talking that reform talk, but seldom walking the walk.

Democracy is a bit of an odd duck; sometimes we get what we want, and just as often, we get what we deserve. Most urban school systems are similar to our inverted business models, where employees, administrators, and stakeholders are more important than customers. Such failed models are possible only where no one is accountable and no one has the courage or integrity to put customers or kids first. In self-segregating cities like the nation's capital, the likely victims of inversion models will be minorities, and black kids in particular.

Indeed, the most notorious example of "black on black" crime might be the American public school system. Take the Dexter Manley case. Manley was an athlete who went through the Texas public school system and then played football for the Washington Redskins. After football, and drug rehab, Manley landed in the Washington Lab School. He finally had to admit that he was a functional illiterate.

Manley was victimized by a system that gave him a permanent hall pass for one of two reasons (maybe both): his race and his jockstrap. If Manley's teachers had applied the same rigor for academics as his coaches did for athletic achievement, Dexter might be a different man today.

For two generations now, public school systems have been bottom-fishing. Most grade and high school teachers come from the dregs of any class of baccalaureates. And many of these underachievers are credentialed with "education" degrees, an admission that such teachers have little or no substantive knowledge. And many of those weak teachers are now principals or administrators. In short, K through 12 has become an affirmative action program for unionized nitwits. Such swamps are not easily drained, and the muck is now generational.

Yet black parents continue to vote for the urban plantation. Marion Barry ran and won four terms as mayor in D.C. If he ran today, he would probably win again. Fenty, sober and progressive in the best sense of the word, was tossed after a term. One of the great ciphers in the wake of Martin Luther King's death is black urban voters who continue to vote against their own best interests.

On Sunday, 26 September, Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared on "Meet the Press" and preached that "we must have the moral courage" to change. We have no evidence that Messrs. Gray, Duncan, or Obama have the moral courage or integrity to adopt any education policy any more enlightened than “business as usual.”

The author is a graduate of Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and several other less illustrious institutions of higher learning. He also writes at Agnotology in Journalism and G. Murphy Donovan.

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