The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.

Advertisements

Dang, Bill…

You knew it was coming. Still, the venom expressed yesterday by leading Democratic 2020 candidates was surprising.

de blasio at nea

Haters gonna hate…

Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York, for example, took the party’s new anti-charter vibe to an extreme. Maybe trying to distinguish himself in the crowded field, Hizzoner seemed to want to come off as the most passionate voice for public education and teachers.

Sure, all the candidates now oppose spending too much public money on charter schools, but de Blasio cranked it up a notch. As he put it,

I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize public education. I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate’ — our teachers taught us not to — but I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.

Moreover, Mayor De Blasio tried to set up a clear us-vs-them distinction on the issue of charter schools. As we’ve seen, there has already been a party realignment on the issue of charter schools. De Blasio wanted to make it a litmus test. “Too many Republicans,” he said,

but also too many Democrats, have been cozy with the charter schools. Let’s be blunt about it. We need to hold our own party accountable, too. And no one should ask for your support, or no one should be the Democratic nominee, unless they’re willing to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.

Will it work? Will de Blasio’s big-city public-school credentials make him a winner with Democrats?

I doubt it. Time will tell, but I don’t think we’ll see the anti-charter movement take more than a secondary role in the primary campaign. Democratic primary voters will want a “public-education” candidate, but I don’t think they’ll make it as much of a leading issue as de Blasio seems to hope.

Charter Schools and 2020: The Huge Elephant in the Classroom

It’s not just about the unions. As we gear up to hear leading Democratic 2020 candidates at the National Education Association forum this afternoon in Houston, pundits keep missing the point about charter schools and our new political landscape.

nea forum

I, too, …erm…would just like to say that I have always advocated the position I recently adopted…

One thing is hard not to notice: Leading Democrats have flipped on charter schools. Until very recently, leaders like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke were positively rosy about the prospects of improving education with charters. No longer. Even Senator Booker, the candidate most thoroughly associated with charter reform, has backpedaled.

For some reason, pundits keep missing the obvious explanation for this important partisan realignment. Writers assume that the only reason Democratic hopefuls bash charters is to please the NEA and other teachers’ unions. As Bloomburg put it,

On charter schools, the top Democrats seem intent on placating teachers’ unions at the expense of low-income families.

Another pro-charter activist warned Democrats like Beto O’Rourke that “pandering” to union interests won’t pay off in the end. “The Presidential campaign trail,” she writes,

is littered with candidates who have won the union endorsements and never made it to the White House or even the nomination. They should remind themselves that our north star in education must be what’s best for children.

Will we see candidates pandering to the NEA this afternoon? Probably. I can’t imagine many of them pushing for more charters and voucher programs in front of this crowd. But there is a bigger, more obvious reason for this; candidates aren’t simply telling the audience what it wants to hear.

Here’s the scoop: Like most education-reform ideas, charter schools could never possibly deliver on the inflated promises of advocates. As historians know—and as I’m finding more and more as I complete the research for my book about America’s first urban school-reform movement—school reform ideas tend to follow a predictable pattern. Confronted with intractable social problems, reformers and politicians glom on to a “silver-bullet” idea that promises to save education in one fell swoop.

Charter schools were never the solution to America’s social and educational problems. They are also not the problem. Some charter schools do a great job of educating children. Some don’t. Since the 1990s, however, charter schools have been unfairly touted as the Next Big Thing, the cure-all for structural problems such as poverty, inequality, racial segregation, and underfunding.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

Until 2016, leaders from both parties embraced this convenient political fiction. It wasn’t the rise of union-backed teacher protests that killed it. Rather, it was the rise of Queen Betsy, the stumbling elephant in the ed-reform china shoppe. By associating charter schools with only the Trumpist wing of the GOP, Queen Betsy has forced Democratic hopefuls to swing the other way.

Do Democratic candidates hope to secure NEA votes? Sure. Will they bash charters to do so? Most likely. But the real elephant in the classroom is Queen Betsy. By making charter schools her signature issue, she has forced a widespread political realignment on the issue.

Stupid Question: Are You “Extremely Proud” to Be an American?

Just in time for the Fourth: New poll results prove that Democrats are a bunch of anti-American no-goodniks. But anyone who knows culture-war history will see that Gallup goofed in the wording of this patriotic question.gallup pride

The poll results won’t really surprise anyone. When asked how proud they are to be Americans—“extremely proud, very proud, moderately proud, only a little proud or not at all proud”—fewer and fewer respondents are saying they are “extremely proud.” Among Democrats, the number has slid to a mere 22%, from a post-9/11 high of 65%.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, asking someone if they are “extremely proud” to be an American doesn’t tell us much. For almost a full century now, this kind of phrase has not been a true measure of one’s love of country, but rather a marker of which side you were on. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, following World War I a certain sort of knee-jerk patriotism became a hallmark of cultural conservatism.

Consider the case of Harold Rugg. Rugg’s textbooks were used by millions of American students. Starting in the late 1930s, however, conservatives in the American Legion and other “patriotic” groups attacked Rugg as sneakily socialist. The books, conservatives argued, were un-American because they questioned America’s role as an unqualifiedly positive force in world history.

As have lefties ever since, Rugg fought back. He insisted that he DID love America, but that children should learn about its faults as well as its virtues. As he put it in 1941, he felt

profound admiration and deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.

He also believed that real American virtues were under attack, not by lefties like him, but by

a few false patriots in our midst who, while mouthing the slogans of Americanism, stamp on the Bill of Rights, destroy tolerant discussion of issues, bear false witness and defame the characters and reputations of other Americans who are sincerely striving to honor and protect the democratic process.

These days, too, asking people if they are “extremely proud” to be American seems to be the wrong question to ask. Consider the flip side: With a few exceptions—such as conservative isolationism in the early 1940s—generally the Left has been the side of “peace.” Since the Vietnam War in particular, saying that you are in favor of “peace” has lined you up with hippies and vegetarianism and Jane Fonda.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring from within.

Of course conservatives are also in favor of “peace.” Who isn’t? But any poll that asked Americans if they were on the side of “peace” would get skewed results. It would find that Democrats apparently favored “peace” more than Republicans.

For this Fourth of July holiday, too, with T-diddy promising “brand-new Sherman tanks” in a Stalin-esque military display, it seems perverse to ask people if they are “extremely proud” to be Americans. Ask us if we love this country. Ask us if we are willing to make sacrifices for the common good. Ask us a million different questions and you’ll get a better answer.

…Could This Possibly Work?

I’m really asking: Does anyone think that white supremacist organizations will  have much luck recruiting on college campuses? According to Inside Higher Education, that’s the reason groups such as the American Identity Movement put up leaflets.

White supremacy posters IHE REAL

…do these things actually work?

Why would they spend time putting up these posters on campuses? According to the Anti-Defamation League, the goal of these white supremacists is to

inject their views into spaces they view as bastions of liberal thinking and left-wing indoctrination.

So here’s my naive question: Is there any possibility some college student will see these posters and think, ‘hmmm, you know that makes a lot of sense”…?

I can’t imagine it, but I know I’m not normal. According to last year’s ADL report, most of the campus “recruiting” was done far away from sunny Binghamton, in Texas and California, Washington state and Florida.

I just can’t imagine this sort of thing getting any traction on our campus. Are other colleges different?

It’s Really All Over for Charter Schools

Although some smart people apparently didn’t see it coming, the writing has been on the wall for charter schools for about two years now. The final nail in its coffin might have come yesterday when former President Barack Obama endorsed a mea culpa from the “ed-reform” movement.obama tweet

As SAGLRROILLYBYGTH are sick of hearing, the remarkable success of charter schools resulted, in large part, from the diverse political coalition that backed them. Conservative evangelicals liked the idea of a refuge from the supposedly secularized public schools. White segregationists hoped charters could stave off school integration. Urban African-American activists liked the notion of a better option for low-income youth. Secular free-marketeers wanted to break the monopoly of the teachers’ unions. Ambitious young overachievers liked the idea of entrepreneurship in education, instead of slogging up the teacher-career ladder.

To be sure, the so-called “reform” movement wasn’t only about charter schools. It also included a heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. The goal was to make sure lazy teachers and underresourced schools could no longer ignore children who didn’t sparkle. Reformers dreamed of displacing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and making sure no child was left behind.

All laudable goals, and all goals that attracted support from across the political spectrum. Until, that is, Hurricane Betsy swept into town. As we’ve discussed in these pages, Secretary DeVos’s reign as educational Trumpist has changed the nature of the ed-reform discussion. Instead of a broad movement open to both Democrats and Republicans, charter schools and the rest of the “reform” movement have now become the signature ed policy of Trump-wingers.

Democrats have fallen over one another rushing for the exits. Leading 2020 contenders such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke all have significant histories as charter supporters and they’re all scrambling to find ways to deny it.

Yesterday, when St. Obama tweeted his agreement with a recent Atlantic article, the handwriting on the wall received its final punctuation. As President Obama wrote,

This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.

By throwing his enormous party prestige into the mix, President Obama has surely spelled the doom of charter-schools and other “reform” measures among the Democratic Party. And when any reform becomes the signature issue of only one political party, it is surely doomed to deadlock, decline, and defeat.

The Least Surprising School Research Ever

Are you sitting down? Because the results of some recent studies might shock you. As The Economist reported recently, it turns out that cutting school budgets…hurts student learning. And all joking aside, though the connection might be glaringly obvious, the details are pretty interesting and point us once again toward the most important school reform.economist test scores smaller

After the Great Recession of 2008, state governments slashed funding for school budgets. They had to. The impact of those cuts was not distributed equally to school districts, however. More affluent districts could support their schools, but districts with fewer financial resources couldn’t. Lower-income districts have traditionally relied more on state funding, so the cuts hurt them worse.

We know that test scores and other school numbers only tell part of the story, but in this case, that part is sad. Studies of the post-recession funding dip found that lower-income schools cut “core activities.” They saw a drop in reading and math test scores, as well as a drop in graduation rates. As one study found,

A 10% reduction in spending per-pupil in all four years of high school reduced the likelihood of a student graduating by 2.7 percentage points.

What’s the solution? For one thing, state support needs to return. By 2015, most states had not returned to pre-2008 school spending levels. A more comprehensive fix will be to eliminate the cruel educational gerrymander that determines school funding by zip code. Instead of fighting for more charter schools and voucher plans, we should put our energy into unifying city and suburban school districts, bringing together students of different backgrounds and leveling out our current senseless feast-or-famine funding scheme.

Sure, you say, but politically such “redistribution” schemes are a dead letter. No affluent suburban voter would support them, and without that support it’s a no-go. Maybe not. Recent polls in Massachusetts and across the South find that large majorities support overhauls of their states’ school-funding schemes. It’s time to stop fighting about charters and start pushing for real school-funding solutions.

Will THIS Make Colleges Think Twice?

It doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are. An $11,000,000 fine still hurts. I can’t help but wonder this morning if colleges will see Oberlin’s punishment as a wake-up call to rein in their activist students.oberlin protest real.jpg

Here’s what we know: A bakery across the street from Oberlin’s uber-liberal campus has just won a whopping $11 million judgment against the school. Back in 2016, three African-American Oberlin students stole from the bakery. The owner chased them down and they were caught. They admitted to the attempted crime and agreed that the incident was not racially inflected.

Before the students confessed, however, outraged Oberlin students took to the street. They chanted that the bakery was racist and waved signs and banners. According to Inside Higher Ed, the administration of the college assisted with the student protest, suspending business with the bakery, organizing protests, and providing materials such as gloves for the protesters.

In light of the facts of the case, the bakery successfully sued for libel. It convinced a state court that the protests

interfered with business relationships, inflicted emotional distress and libeled the owners.

Will this judgment make other college administrators think twice about supporting student protests? As we all know, no matter if a school is conservative, liberal, or other, no administrator is willing to risk legal liability. I can’t help but think that this case will make cautious university presidents reconsider their knee-jerk support for student activism.

What Do Women Want?

It is a difficult thing for secular, progressive people like me to get through our thick skulls. I’ve been reading the work lately of historians such as Beth Allison Barr, Kristen Kobes Dumez, and Emily Suzanne Johnson about the relationship between conservative religion, conservative politics, and what people used to call “the woman question.” If we needed any reminding, recent poll numbers remind us that conservative women are often MORE conservative than conservative men about the proper public role of women.

So a little true confession: Way back in the 1980s, I would have agreed with my Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She has insisted that there are two sides in politics today: Trump vs. Women. As Senator Gillibrand put it,

I believe that if President Trump wants a war with America’s women, it’s a war he will have and it is one he will lose.

A younger me would have assumed—as Senator Gillibrand is hoping people will assume—that women in general will have a certain political viewpoint. I would have assumed that women should be in favor of abortion rights, equal pay for women, and other feminist basics. I would have agreed that it just makes sense for women voters to be especially outraged by Trump’s violent talk and anti-feminist politics.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of historical study, however, to realize that there is no natural “woman’s” position in religion or politics.

Certainly, as I found in my research into educational conservatism in the twentieth century, conservative women usually played a leading role in pushing for traditional gender roles and anti-feminist politics. In the early part of the century, leaders of the Daughters of the American Revolution articulated a conservative vision for the proper role of women in society. As DAR leader Grace Brosseau put it in 1928,

We need some cheer leaders for America; we need some fearless citizens to sit on the side lines and do a little talking in the interest of this country.

This notion of women fighting for their right to NOT be leaders themselves has always been difficult for me to comprehend, but it is not an anomaly in American history, politics, and religion. Lots of women have insisted on their proper roles “on the side lines” instead of on the field.

Today’s poll numbers show that some women today still feel the same way. Buried in a 2018 PRRI survey about the differences between men and women in politics we find some important numbers. First, most respondents say they have no gender preference in political candidates. All things being equal, 70% of Americans say they’d vote for the most qualified candidate regardless of gender.

Only 11% say they would prefer a male candidate, but among Republican women, that number jumps to 23%. In fact, more Republican women (23%) than men (14%) are willing to admit to preferring a male candidate.

A younger me would have been astounded by this number. Like a lot of my progressive, secular friends, I used to assume that women would “naturally” avoid religious hierarchies that put them below men. I used to think that women voters would “naturally” want more political rights. It’s just not the case.

It’s Not Only Right-Wingers Who Get Schooled

It was embarrassing. Yesterday, NPR’s Cokie Roberts said a bunch of stuff about the history of abortion that just wasn’t true. After an academic historian exposed the goof, NPR had to retract the whole thing. Why did Roberts do it? Because to be a “real” historian, you don’t need a tenure-track university job or a PhD from an elite graduate program, but you do need to think a certain way about the past and be willing to spend the time to understand the past correctly.Dr Thompson Tweet Roberts apparently couldn’t be bothered.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about the ways academic historians “dunk” on right-wing history pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza. In those cases, academics such as Kevin Kruse debunk the false historical assertions made by pundits for purely political purposes, like when D’Souza claimed that the Republican Party was the true anti-racist, pro-civil-rights party. When D’Souza and other right-wing pundits like David Barton make their bad history, they tend to cherry-pick factlets without giving full weight to the broader, truer historical picture.

Yesterday’s case was different. NPR’s Cokie Roberts did indeed make a political point using history. She argued that today’s pro-choice politics assume that abortion was common—and dangerous—before Roe v. Wade. But Roberts did not just pick out a few truish facts to make an untrue argument. Instead, she misinterpreted the past based on her own lazy methods.

Originally (NPR has since removed Roberts’s goof), Roberts said,

there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.

Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an historian at Georgia State University, quickly pointed out the huge hole in Roberts’s argument. Perhaps Roberts really had done a search of newspapers, but as a bad historian, she did a bad search. Roberts searched for phrases such as “abortion” and “birth control,” phrases that weren’t used in the 1800s, and found out—surprise, surprise—that they weren’t used in the 1800s. Her faulty conclusion? Newspapers did not advertise for abortions in the past.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, Roberts made two huge mistakes that any trained historian would have avoided without even thinking about it:

1.) Roberts assumed that the terms we use were the same as the terms used in the past.

2.) Roberts did not take time to understand the historical context for her quick database search.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, 19th-century newspapers really were full of advertisements for abortions and other anti-pregnancy medical interventions, but they used different language to describe them. Back then, newspapers referred to “menstrual regulation,” “medical relief,” “curing irregularities,” and so on.

Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no reason why someone needs a PhD or a tenure-track university job to be a “real” historian. All kinds of people do great historical work everyday, whether they are middle-school teachers, stamp collectors, historical re-enactors, or hard-working journalists.

What Cokie Roberts did is different. She skipped the hard work necessary to understand the past and instead accepted her own flitting google-search to be decent historical evidence.