Talk about your “social experiments”

Talk about your “social experiments”

The extreme right’s wacky plans to wreck the public schools

One of the Big Lies of the modern political era is the American far right’s unrelenting effort to portray any judge who happens to be less conservative than Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia as a “liberal activist.”  Ever since the days of Earl Warren (a progressive Republican who had the audacity to lead the U.S. Supreme Court in giving some actual meaning to the Bill of Rights), the term “liberal activist judge” has been a slur hurled by many conservatives. The intent, of course, is to give the impression of reckless, on-the-fly lawmaking: to conjure up the impression that the judge in question has an agenda above and beyond enforcing the law or the Constitution.

The supreme irony of the “liberal activist judge” label, of course, – especially over the last few decades – is that it has not been liberals that have been the activists in the judicial world, but ideological conservatives. Whether it’s overturning legislative acts, rolling back decades of well-established legal precedent or even electing a President, the far right has mounted an aggressive and often successful effort to use conservative judges as a key faction in its political jihad. Meanwhile, supposed “liberal activists” have mostly been relegated to doing what they can to hold back the tide and to prevent wholesale changes that would take the nation back to the 19th century.

Hypocrisy regarding the public schools

Now, judging by the tenor of the discussion recently in Wake County, it appears the right is bent upon importing the same disingenuous tactic into the debate over public education. Listen to the rhetoric of supporters of so-called “neighborhood schools” who attack Wake’s successful efforts to build a robust, integrated and county-wide school system by mislabeling it as a “social experiment.”

Again and again, conservatives and their candidates for school board have trotted out this ridiculous smear – as if supporters of diversity in a countywide system were mad scientists callously sacrificing children and their families on the altar of some diabolical plot cooked up in an ivory tower laboratory.

As with the right’s dishonest spin-doctoring when it comes to judges, this attack is not only ridiculously inaccurate (Wake County’s system is a proven and remarkable success) but amazingly ironic. For even as the ideological right inaccurately accuses diversity supporters of “experimenting” with our children, the very same forces are promoting genuinely radical experiments in the organization of the public schools that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud.

Consider, for instance, the latest proposal from one of the top cheerleaders for re-segregating the Wake County schools, the Raleigh-based Locke Foundation. Here’s an excerpt from an opinion piece that one of the group’s staffers that ran in Raleigh’s News & Observer this week:

“It's time for bold reforms from the newly elected, reform-minded Wake County school board members….

Under ideal conditions, all parents would have the power to send their children to any school in the district. No questions asked, no long forms to fill out and no bureaucratic harassment. Parents who want a neighborhood school would have one. Parents who want to take advantage of a magnet school or other unique educational opportunity would get one. Parents who want a year-round schedule (or traditional schedule) would get one. This also means existing schools would be able to expand to meet growing demand.

The money for each child would follow the student, with more money following economically disadvantaged students. For example, the current state funding formula increases the amount allocated for economically disadvantaged students by about 10 percent. Additional local money could make the per student funding for disadvantaged students even greater. Each school's budget would be determined by adding the amounts that each student brings to that school. If a school fails to educate a child to the parents' satisfaction, the school loses the student and the money.

Creating choices for parents and space for students is critical. This is accomplished by allowing teachers, principals and even parent groups to start new schools and design unique curricula, within state mandates, that they believe best serve their students.

These new schools could be housed in existing buildings — several small schools in the same building — or in renovated storefronts. Let's bury the idea that a school is a building. A school is anywhere teachers and students come together for learning. Whereas the current neighborhood school concept limits parents to one school within a neighborhood, this new system would offer parents a choice among several different schools within the same neighborhood.”

Got that? Nothing radical or “experimental” – just a complete dismantling of one of the best mid-to-large size school districts in the nation and the institution of a completely new model of education that has never succeeded anywhere else on such a scale.

Reality check

Okay, let’s see if we can sum up some of what it is that the Locke staffer is attempting to seriously suggest:

1.     Emptying all 158 public schools in Wake County of the 140,000 children currently assigned to them;

2.     Allowing the establishment of an unlimited number of additional schools – presumably even in private homes;

3.     Increasing local public school expenditures (at least on disadvantaged students);

4.     Cramming even more students into already overcrowded, but popular existing schools;

5.     Limiting the budgets of schools to the total of the per student funds for which they are able to successfully compete; and

6.     Doing all of this without any bureaucracy or busing.

Even for those of us who’ve gotten used to the wackiest of the far right’s policy proposals, this one is particularly startling in its utter detachment from reality. Setting aside any possible pluses or minuses that any of these specific ideas might have in the abstract, where does this author think he lives – some Ayn Randian fantasy world?  Afghanistan?

That anyone purporting to be a genuine policy analyst would seriously suggest completely razing some of the finest schools in the Unites States in such a cavalier fashion (or that it was even remotely practical) is beyond belief. And why? By what mandate? Because a handful of parents in a few districts were unhappy with their less-than-absolutely-perfect school assignments and turned out in an off-year, October election that attracted one-in-ten eligible voters?

According to the Locke Foundation, however, the recent developments in Wake County constitute a “revolution.”  This is from the front page of the group’s website:

“Recently voters in Wake County acted on their concerns over the direction of public schools, voting overwhelmingly for those candidates who promised to bring reform to the school system. Assuming the new board members follow through on their campaign promises, they will find a wealth of useful information just clicks away here at JLF.”

Unfortunately, it appears that despite the group’s megalomania and loony policy proposals, it may wield some influence. The likely incoming chair of the Board is loyal devotee and so too are some of the other new members. Absent a concerted effort from responsible Wake County residents to arise from their recent political slumber and stand up in defense of their schools, the coming months and years could be a dark and disturbing period. 

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and that once some of the incoming board members get “inside” and grasp the true magnitude of the challenges they confront, they come to their senses.

Until such time, however, it appears that the far right will be pushing hard to launch all sorts of audacious changes to public school policy that can only be described as “social experiments.”             

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
[email protected]