Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Action And Over Reaction

In The West Wing season one there is an episode called A Proportional Response.  It originally aired almost two years before 9/11.  The premise is that the President's personal physician, somebody the President regarded with affection, was en route to the Middle East when the plane he was on was shot down by terrorists.  The President had the urge to "invoke the wrath of God" on these evil doers.  (Here is some dialog from that episode.)  He had to be talked down from that view by his Chief of Staff, who showed the President the folly in escalating the violence.

Reality is worse than TV fiction.  There is no sensible Chief of Staff to bring balance that will help to restore normalcy.  Today's column by Roger Cohen is a reminder.  NSA's intrusive data collection, perhaps FISA sanctioned but almost certainly of worse consequence than the terrorism it aims to deter, surely it is perceived that way in Germany, has become the question du jour.  In this way of thinking the terrorists win, not by any direct violence they cause themselves but rather by our disproportionate response, which inflicts massive self-imposed wounds.

This idea of making the abnormal the new normal and then going from there seems to occur in many arenas - doping in pro sports, for example.  The one I want to consider here, however, is education in the U.S. and the inequality that prevails in the system.  Sad as this is to say, it certainly seems conceivable that things are worse in that dimension now than when we operated under Plessy versus Ferguson.  The question is why.

I am a product of the NYC Public Schools.  I went to I.H.S. 74 from 1966-68 and the school was integrated via busing.  I walked to school as did most of the white kids.  The black kids were bussed.  This school had been a Junior High when I entered, so I started in 7th grade, but became a middle school while I was there so I graduated after 8th grade.  I don't really recall this, but I have a sense that at the time there was not busing for integration purposes at the elementary school I attended, P.S. 203, though it my very well have happened after I left.  The High School I later attended, Benjamin Cardozo, was integrated via busing.

There is not much talk nowadays of this period in our history.  On social equity grounds busing may have been absolutely necessary ceteris paribus.  But all else did not remain equal, at least not for very long.  Busing was a shock to the system.  I suppose the hope at the time was that people would get over the shock and a new, better normalcy would be attained.  That hope is represented in the film Remember The Titans.  Instead of getting over it, however, for many there were other reactions.  The initial one was white flight - a move to the suburbs to avoid the consequences of integration.  I don't know how many of the families of my Middle School classmates moved to Great Neck or even further out in Nassau County, but I'm sure some did.  And. obviously, the trend continued after I graduated from High School.

In economics the idea is called the Tiebout Hypothesis, where it is sanitized of its racial connotation.  It concerns all "local public good" expenditures that are financed by property taxes.  In that model families select which community to reside in by the best public services - tax combination, according to their preference.  Housing choice then becomes "voting with your feet."  Individual communities become more homogeneous as their particular package of pubic goods and taxes brings about like minded people.  The original paper by Tiebout was published in 1956, well before the Civil Rights Act but after Brown versus the Board of Education.   Given its date of publication, I doubt that Tiebout anticipated the white flight phenomenon.  His motives in writing the piece were probably more benign.  Nevertheless, it served as a basis for Conservative thinking about local public goods, particularly schools.

There were other subsequent reactions.  Private non-parochial schools emerged for the well-to-do families but where the parents had attended Public School, particularly for those who remained in urban areas.  This was school flight away from the Public Schools without housing flight.  Accompanying these reactions there was a move toward a more Conservative view of government, particularly at the State and Federal levels.  Watergate was a strong facilitating factor here but let's not think of it as the sole cause.  And as a consequence of this move to the right there followed the decline in State funding for public education.

After that all sorts of mishegoss came about how to solve the problem:  Charter Schools, No Child Left Behind, blaming teachers for the problem, etc.  Diane Ravitch has it right in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Hers is a solitary voice of sensibility, with her main point  that we need robust Public Schools.  People should rely on their local school.  It should be tolerably good, producing well educated graduates.

But we don't seem headed in that direction.  Quite the contrary.  Our excessive reactions are doing us in.  When will we wake up to this fact? 

No comments: