Why Are American Schools Failing?

Lately, I have been reading the works of Charles Murray, an author of social commentaries who is not at all popular with those on the left side of the political spectrum. Mostly, I’ve wanted to determine whether his unpopularity is due to the fact that he is right, or whether the criticism that he uses data to fit into his preconceived conclusions is a fair criticism of his work.

One area where I do think his work is right on the money is when he talks about why American public schools have declined. If I had to paraphrase his work into a sentence, it would be this: American public schools are generally on the decline because individual communities no longer consist of a wide range of students from significantly varying economic backgrounds, and to the extent that you still do have areas where kids of the affluent and relatively poor intermingle, the affluent often choose to send their kids off to private schools. I call it the loss of the “invisible father.”

If you grew up in a broken home two generations or so ago, you had two potential ways to benefit from an “invisible father.” First, you could have attended a public school in an area where students of different economic backgrounds were also on the rolls. This is important because, if the school district starts to pull shenanigans, you had the fathers of the local lawyers, doctors, and community businessmen to step in at school meetings and correct the bad behavior in the school district. In other words, when they were protecting the interests of their own sons and daughters, they were also protecting the interests of the children born without parents actively securing their interests.

It’s almost like a checks-and-balance system of sorts. If all of the parents in a particular area are apathetic or unable to realize the implications of changes in the school curriculum, then their kids are left out like a fish that turns up on the dock under the summer sun. But as soon as you have one parent in the district speaking out forcefully against goofball policies, then you have a way to get the fish back in the water.

The second line of protection had been this: even if the parents of the affluent students in the area opted to send their children to private schools, they still paid money on their property taxes that benefit the students in the school district—so if you’re surrounded by a bunch of $200,000 homes and the guy with the $500,000 house sends his kids to private schools, you still received the benefit of his property taxes to go towards your school district. Money doesn’t automatically solve the remaining problems, but it should sure makes it easier.

The problem is that, directionally speaking, people are choosing to live more assortative lifestyles. People tend to marry people from their economic background, and then put themselves in communities with people from their own economic background. In other words, you don’t see a whole lot of women getting their PhD and then marrying the guy that collects her trash in the morning. For those of you interested in the data on this, I encourage you to check out Pennsylvania Professor Jeremy Greenwood’s research on the topic, which you can find by clicking on this entry from Pew Research.

Solutions to this problem are extraordinarily hard to come by if you want to remain faithful to the principles of freedom that are supposed to govern this nation’s lawmaking decisions. There is nothing more fundamental than the parent’s right to educate their children in a way that they see fit, and it would crumple that principle of freedom into a ball and toss it into the trash-heap if you forced parents to send their children to underperforming schools out of a desire to impose a duty on parents to improve the performance of underperforming schools. Human nature being what it is, the school district probably wouldn’t improve anyway under a coercive approach because bringing affluent, intelligent people in against their will would motivate them to undermine the education efforts because I’ve yet to meet someone that responds with good faith in response to coercion.

In short, the solution involves this: the students that have parents that don’t give them the tools they need have to find a way to get their hands on culture and intelligence and social norms of those doing it the right way. The best way to accomplish this historically is to have blended districts with affluent and not-so-affluent students so that the benefits designed to accrue to the more affluent students also reach those that are less well off. The reason why very intelligent people can’t resolve this problem is because not enough affluent parents are voluntarily putting themselves in positions where they act in the interests of the greater good, and forcing them to do so would violate the principles of freedom that we treasure.