All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 2001

The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education by Jeffrey R. Henig, Richard C. Hula, Marion Orr, and Desiree S. Pedescleaux

Can Making Minorities Better at Politics Improve Public Education?

Princeton University Press • 1999 • 292 pages • $35.00

Race, contend the authors of The Color of School Reform, is pivotal in efforts to reform public education in urban communities. Important too is government’s ability to facilitate development of civic capacity—“the capacity to collectively set goals and effectively pursue them”—which is the heart and soul of this book.

Drawing on research done in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., communities where for years African-Americans have held educational leadership positions, the authors conclude that the chronically poor academic performance of minority students results from the lack of “civic capacity” building. And they stress the need to mobilize minorities in the task of getting better at politics.

But herein lies the book’s fatal flaw. The authors’ focus on civic capacity is a focus on the left’s never-ending call to embrace the false tenets of “progressive education” and an ideology that values the collective over the individual and government control over a free market.

The authors’ underlying assumption is that “progressive” ideals and tactics offer the one true path to an enlightened future. In citing others’ research and occasionally by the cautious use of their own words, the four authors obliquely embrace artifacts of socialism. Why not “expand the scope of conflict” and bring back a Saul Alinsky-style of mobilizing people? Had the authors titled the book “The Use of Public Resources to Bring Progressive Reform in Human Nature and Public Education,” I would have less cause for criticism. Then the title would have plainly let the cat out of the bag. As it stands, the chosen title implies a book about school reform, which it is not.

Indeed, the book focuses more on building political skills than on improving student learning (an issue that is almost never mentioned). Ignoring that Washington, D.C.’s per capita student expenditure is among the nation’s highest, the book names “inadequate resources” as a principal reason for poor student performance. But then, lack of adequate resources is the education establishment’s oft-repeated, all-purpose mantra.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t provide provocative insights—it certainly does. However unintentionally, it offers some help to those interested in reforming education by improving student performance. Several case studies reveal a corruption of purpose and the resulting misallocation of public funds. By the authors’ own account, political patronage drains much-needed money from classrooms to pay the salaries of unneeded administrators. In Atlanta this practice is the result of the “Atlanta Compromise,” which “required the board of education to hire an African-American superintendent and reserved 50 percent of all administrative positions in the system for blacks.”

School districts thus become employment agencies and tax dollars become the grease superintendents use to smooth the game of base politics. Yes, race-based hiring preferences have played a role in bringing minorities up to and beyond LBJ’s “starting line.” But this book makes it obvious that race-based hiring of teachers and administrators—rather than competency-based hiring—has also greatly impeded student learning. This lack of student learning produces adults who cannot compete in the marketplace, and adults who cannot compete come to depend on race-based hiring preferences to land teaching and administrative jobs. The cycle repeats again and again.

Perhaps it is time for citizens—black and nonblack—in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., to withhold support from educational regimes that absorb millions of dollars and are impervious to student-learning-centered change. The authors, wedded to the idea of politically driven education, would disagree and lead parents and children down a wrong path. The better path leads to a free market and parental choice.

G. Gregory Moo, an educational consultant, is the author of Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children.