According to the U.S. Department of Education, our systems of public schools spend (in adjusted dollars) nearly four times what was paid to administrators in 1950. Maybe this is an exaggeration; but, even if half true, the reality would deserve our attention.

At the very least, one should ask: Has this spending policy been accompanied by an improvement in outcomes among our children and for American society?

A lot would depend upon what we take the word “outcome” to mean. The measure most cited is student performance on standardized tests; this is the only common gauge for all systems and ages. But if scores are all that counts, American schools have a rather steady record of failure to improve.

Of course, less easily measured consequences of spending should have their place in our reckoning. And one can reasonably assume that smaller classes, higher salaries, more counsellors, sports and so forth have had their place in developing the human person – to good or ill.

So, too, has the specific experience of the lower-income family and child in their relationship to the particular school to which the child has been mustered. From the day he or she was born, the parents knew where James or Susie would receive formal education – quite irrespective of that school’s reputation and of parental preference.

There has been no reason for the latter to dwell on the question of what might be best for the child. For eight hours a day, their responsibility will cease five days a week for the next 11 years. This reality will have its own consequences for the child, the parent – and civil society.

The character of the American public school experience varies among states, neighborhoods, districts, schools and even from classroom to classroom. The one thing the observer can be confident of is each classroom’s vulnerability to the authority who chooses the book and the film – and to the teacher who presents them.

The experience of the pupil in Berkeley, California, may be very different from that of the child in Beverly Hills, California – but then again, it may not. Our own children, now in their 50s and 60s, swam in the political waters of the public schools of the ‘60s and ‘70s with their diverse ideological currents and political intensity.

That is, they did so until, in specific instances, the experience became threatening – mostly to the mind but, on rare occasions, the body.

In such cases, we switched to private religious schools which, incidentally, were more successfully integrated. Yet we also switched back to Berkeley High from a private school that did not suit our daughter.

My point in this personal history? Marylyn and I had the resources to (as we saw it) rescue the child. In contrast, a considerable (and expanding) slice of America’s parent population is quite unable even to consider that course of action. This disempowering of our urban poor, from the later 19th century until this day, has been a given.

It has become so in many minds of the middle class as we observe this humiliation with its message of civic separation; worse, it dwells in the hearts and minds of the poor themselves: We are the despised; don’t blame us if we act accordingly.

Marie Antoinette had a point. The hunger of the poor for dignity could be addressed with cake or whatever else this society decides to force-feed the child. They must eat it; the law (of nature, but here of the State) makes it compulsory.

They may survive; but do not expect the poor to embrace the role of ardent citizen.

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