WASHINGTON – Some Americans are waking up to a volcanic social crisis that is revealing itself in smoldering public schools in the central cities. More than rotting bridges and highways, more than sexual abuse in the military, more than Russia, the crises in urban schools are the most massive, long-neglected problem the nation faces.
It is all about worsening disparities based on race, economic opportunity, family formation, physical safety and the essential absence of trust within and beyond the troubled neighborhoods.
This makes any uninvited discussion like this one as safe and comfortable as handling razor wire. So talk about it, even at the highest levels, is encased in phoniness, in correct speech cubed, where solutions are evaded: Because real answers require unprecedented interracial trust and hard work and mountains of money.
Take Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. A few days ago, they insisted they were “shocked, shocked, do you hear?” that preschoolers were being suspended and that three times as many black children in proportion were ejected as whites.
The national data came from a report they both commissioned, and came three months after they backed guidelines to local districts to go easier on minority youngsters who misbehave.
The survey showed a similar disproportion of discipline in Buffalo schools. But, as in many other urban districts studied, the actual number of disciplinary actions per school was small. And the proportion of minority pupils to whites was very large.
This federal survey of almost 100,000 districts offered no reasons for the disciplinary actions. Nor did it explain the living circumstances, such as they were, for the unfortunate jettisoned kids.
As shallow as the study is, it sounds an alarm. Eight years from now, teachers all over the country are going to report – as they did in a confidential report by Bennett High School teachers in Buffalo – that these erstwhile children have made their schools unmanageable because of drugs, weapons, intimidation of students and teachers, and brawling indoors and out.
The report signals that at the very age when federal and state programs should be influencing and forming our littlest and most vulnerable Americans, we’re simply failing miserably.
And the overriding popular assumptions – all of them dead wrong – are (1) that we spent too much money on the central cities and urban poor, (2) that we have one public education system instead of two and (3) that teachers and their public schools can compensate for three decades of “benign neglect,” meaning the collapse of home life and public order among our most desperately poor.
By the way, the unemployment rate for young African-American adults still looking for work is 23.6 percent as of last Friday.
So we pick away at the edges of a massive social cancer. UCLA did a study of disparities in school punishment in Syracuse schools. So what? Former chief state judge Judith Kaye held a recent summit in Syracuse about how to keep kids out of the criminal justice system – seizing on the data from the Holder-Duncan study. So what? Hand wringing and rules aren’t going to make it happen.
True, there are actions government can take. One would be for members of the State Board of Regents to push away from their creamed pasta bows and assume responsibility for Buffalo schools.
But more broadly, true progressives – does that still include President Obama? – must realize that we gave up on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program way too soon. Spending on social services, school guidance, smaller class size, home care, transportation, after-school jobs and employment training must be vastly increased, not cut, as House Republicans plan to do.