There is an old Chinese saying "death from a thousand cuts" and, sad to say, America is now suffering such a death. How, you ask? The answer is seemingly well-intentioned litigation that will only exacerbate an already bad situation while further draining depleted budgets. And rest assured, while we only highlight one of such "cut," the disorder is everywhere and few Americans even recognize this slow death. By the time we wake up, it will be too late.
This specific "cut" concerns a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU to force Michigan's Highland Park School District to improve the education of its academically struggling students. This is only one of several similar lawsuits filed in New York, New Jersey among other states. The facts are straightforward. According to a little known 1993 Michigan state law, all children have a right to literacy and the Highland Park students in grades 4 and 7 are doing poorly on standardized reading tests-65% of 4th graders are not proficient and 75% of 7th graders likewise failed to reach proficiency. Many 7th graders are, in fact, barely literate so a high school dropout rate of 46% is hardly surprising. The state law requires special assistance in such instances, and while the schools offer a program targeting strugglers, it obviously fails to impress the ACLU.
The second set of facts is that Highland Park already verges on bankruptcy. Schools are losing pupils (which means less state aid) and the city faces an $11.3 million deficit. Meanwhile, major employers and middle class residents are fleeing so the tax base is rapidly shrinking. To make matters worse, the school's record keeping is so inept that nobody really knows the problem's full extent.
Can litigation help? Extremely unlikely, and given that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Highland Parks across America, this well-intentioned "rescue" effort may well bring a national plague. Begin by acknowledging that Highland Park educators are undoubtedly trying their best or, alternatively, problems of home life and poverty are just overwhelming. Surely teachers want to educate children and any success with these lagging kids would be career boosting. Michigan is likewise making a major remedial effort by assumed responsibility for three schools with plans to transfer them to a charter school operator in the fall. In the meantime the city's debt is being restructured.
So, why does the ACLU's intervention, a little extra kick in the pants, so to speak portent a possible national disaster? Let me be blunt: despite endless research on this question and billions for almost every alleged cure imaginable, there are no solutions and the problems are, in all likelihood, intractable. Conceivably, the limited native ability of many of these children makes "proficiency" unrealistic, no different than a law requiring 7th graders to run a 100 yard dash in under 12 seconds. The unmentionable source of the problem, then, is the unrealistic state law, not pedagogical inadequacy. A more practical ready standard might be "adequacy" and with that small legal alteration, the ACLU's suit vanishes.
Now let's assume that the ACLU wins its case, and the judge issues an edict: proficiency for all in five years, or else!! The disaster now begins. First, though experts are clueless on a cure, rest assured that more spending will be ordered, taxes raised, and with higher taxes, an already struggling state economy will languish. Highland Park may well slide into bankruptcy. The only beneficiaries will be those profiting from already bloated, and unproductive "education industry."
To be impolite, more quacks will be hired to implement schemes that have never worked and will never work. The Kansas City experiment is the poster child-gargantuan expenses for overseas field trips, lavish athletic facilities, new expensive buildings, smaller classes, armies of special counselors and on and on, and nothing worked. The more recent "Abbott schools" experiment in New Jersey confirmed this foolishness-massive court-ordered spending increases for low-performing schools financed by taxpayers and zero improvement. Remember, faced with a court order to "do something," it is pointless to heed experts who demonstrate that "nothing works." Instead, those who insist that their schemes that "might work" will carry the day.
It will get worse. As expenditures soar, and results remain flat, the pressure to cheat will be inevitable. School officials, not students, will lead the way and recent newspaper accounts of such top-down cheating suggest that this is becoming the response to impossible-to-meeting demands (see here). In a year or two this cheating may resemble publicly tolerated tax evasion in countries like Greece and Italy. That is, since "everyone does it" only a fool remains honest, and cheaters will now dominate schools.
Unrealistic court-ordered pressure may also bring dumbed-down standards. After all, only a few bureaucrats actually know what goes into the reading test, and too difficult questions can invisibly be eliminate. Now, almost overnight, proficiency soars. (This jimmy-the-test solution is especially tempting since it relieves educators of the hands-on cheating that risks termination.) Yes, many "proficient" students will still be semi-literate but that may not be apparent for years when employees discover the ruse. And rest assured, city and even state officials will turn a blind eye towards this dishonesty since this bogus newly achieved "proficiency" will satisfy the judge and this means no tax hikes.
Finally, this episode will teach a horrific lesson to Highland Park students and parents: why study hard, wait until the ACLU and a sympathetic judge arrive, and thanks to their intervention, you will know how to read. Salvation via litigation, a terrific recipe for sloth and dependency.
This damage will not, however, be uniform. Smart middle class parents hardly welcome scarce educational resources being directed at the bottom of the bottom (plus dumbed-down standards), often to no avail, and will personally remedy the situation with extra tutoring, enrolling junior in a no-nonsense private school or just re-locating to an upscale school distinct immune to an ACLU lawsuit. Now, the chasm between the rich and poor will further widen. Schools in poor areas will only get worse. Advocates of America's poor now can say that with friends like the litigation prone ACLU, who needs enemies?
Multiply this scenario across dozens of states and thousands of school districts, even those not sued by the ACLU, and you have a perfect recipe for undermining America's public schools. Those not sued will be preemptive and "ACLU-proof" the test results or while conveniently ignoring cheating. Who would have imagined the nefarious impact of such "high-minded litigation to improve our nation's schools"? Teachers and administers as well as many public officials who once honestly struggled against great odds to impart learning will now re-focus their effort to avoid a court orders bringing unemployment and higher taxes.
Obviously, the collapse of public education in Highland Park is not a crisis threatening America. But, this tale is about death by a thousand cuts, and this is just one cut. Bit by bit, almost invisibly, scores of American schools will slide towards mediocrity to avoid judicial orders that will accomplish nothing other than raising taxes to enrich the ineffectual education industry. This is no different than what occurred under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind-intense pressure to uplift the bottom while that brought zero academic gain. And, for good measure, eliminating classes for the gifted.
To put this into a larger perspective, recall Voltaire's adage: the perfect is the enemy of the good. Our incessant efforts to uplift the bottom incur costs well beyond wasted billions. The pursuit may well destroy what we already have-a good though hardly stellar educational system-- so as to achieve the egalitarian fantasy of everyone being "proficient." Better to acknowledge intractability, no matter how painful or politically incorrect, than slide into bankruptcy and a culture of mendacity.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society andBad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.
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