A Local Lesson That Democrats Fail

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The eight Democratic presidential candidates assembled in Washington last week for another of their debates and talked, among other things, about public education. They all essentially agreed that it was underfunded -- one system "for the wealthy, one for everybody else," as John Edwards put it. Then they all got into cars and drove through a city where teachers are relatively well paid, per-pupil spending is through the roof and -- pay attention here -- the schools are among the very worst in the nation. When it comes to education, Democrats are ineducable.

One candidate after another lambasted George W. Bush, the Republican Party and, of course, the evil justices of the Supreme Court. But not a one of them even whispered a word of outrage about a public school system that spends $13,000 per child -- third-highest among big-city school systems -- and produces pupils who score among the lowest in just about any category you can name. The only area in which the Washington school system is No. 1 is in money spent on administration. Chests should not swell with pride.

The litany of more and more when it comes to money often has little to do with what, in the military, are called facts on the ground: kids and parents. It does have a lot to do with teachers unions, which are strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Not a single candidate offered anything close to a call for real reform. Instead, a member of the audience could reasonably conclude that if only more money were allocated to these woe-is-me school systems, things would right themselves overnight.

Only one candidate, Barack Obama, suggested that maybe money was not all that was lacking when it comes to educating America's poor and minority children. Parents had a role to play, too. "It is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African American and other groups to take personal responsibility to rise up out of the problems we face," he said. What? It's not just a question of funding?

Obama has said this sort of thing before. Back in March, in one of his first major speeches as a presidential candidate, he struck just the right balance -- not only more money but more personal responsibility, too: "Even as I fight on behalf of more education funding . . . I have to also say that if parents don't turn off the television set when the child comes home from school and make sure they sit down and do their homework and go talk to the teachers and find out how they're doing . . . I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white."

I suppose it is easier for Obama to say these things because he is black and impervious to charges of racism. But black or white, white or black, Hispanic or Asian American or whatever, kids are kids. We're talking about lives that could be salvaged and made productive and rich. The problem no longer is just underfunding or racial segregation, it is something else -- and we all know it. Yet, when the Supreme Court ruled last week that in most cases race could no longer be taken into account to achieve classroom diversity, the groans from the Democratic candidates suggested that something of great and tragic consequence had occurred -- Jim Crow was at the schoolhouse door.

The reality is that the court decision has almost no application to the big-city school systems we worry so much about. Most of these systems are overwhelmingly black or Hispanic. The public schools in Washington are overwhelmingly black; the Los Angeles public schools are overwhelmingly Hispanic; and Philadelphia has about 180,000 nonwhite students and 30,000 whites. New York's borough of the Bronx has about 200,000 black or Hispanic students and nearly as many Asian/Pacific Islanders as whites (9,000). "I can't do racial balancing," Joel Klein, New York City's innovative schools chancellor, told me. To him, it's a distant dream.

Insofar as the Democratic presidential candidates talked about public school education and insofar as they mentioned the Supreme Court decision, they largely mouthed Democratic orthodoxy. It must have sounded reassuring to big-city education unions and politicians with a gift for exacerbating racial paranoia. But to the kid in the classroom, to a parent bucking the bureaucracy, the rhetoric must have sounded as unreal as the hot air that comes from Baghdad's Green Zone -- a "surge" of money instead of men or, as we used to say, throwing good money after bad.

cohenr@washpost.com


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