Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity — in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.

Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it’s more a question of individual versus collective good.

When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.

Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.

“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.

Now, it’s possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.

There is a clear logic to the idea that if a school has a highly diverse student body in terms of wealth, race, background and academic ability, the most stake of the more fortunate and more able in the school’s overall success will result in the entire group being pulled up.

However, at the same time, it is utterly and completely reasonable that a parent, given the choice of two schools — one with better teachers and less crime than the other — would pick the better school for his children.

Now, in a situation in which the community is small or mobility is low, it may be that there’s really only one possible school to choose. In that case, people find themselves in the same boat by necessity and those will the means to do so will exert themselves in order to improve the school. However, in a mass society with a high mobility, a parent is faced with a very different situation: Moving to a neighborhood with better schools (or opting out of the public school system in favor of private schooling or homeschooling) can make a very big difference in the future of his own children, while the removal of just one more affluent and more academically able student from a school composed of hundred will be of no measurable detriment to the more disadvantaged students. And yet, if all of the parents with more money or more concern about academics remove their children from a struggling school, the school will not only do worse on average (having removed the upper end of the curve) but may even serve the poorer and underachieving students worse than before, since they will now lack the resources and influence of the higher-achieving students who left.

Government can try to force students into undesirable schools in order that they may exert some sort of upwards pressure on them, but since efforts will naturally be resented and resisted since parents naturally want the best for their children.

There is no obvious trade-off which helps everybody.

13 Responses to Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I’m not joking, and anyone who wants to snicker may do so, but if this forced egalitarianism isn’t communism, I’m not sure what is.

    I hope this policy dies the death it deserves.

    And I truly feel sorry for the lower-income minority students who are shafted with these horrid government schools. They were sucked into dependency upon an inferior product.

    There are deep, structural flaws in the entire manner in which this country does education. Almost all of our leftists and at least half of our conservatives buy into what Charles Murray calls “educational romanticism”, or what I just call rampant egalitarianism.

    Though I regularly criticize the European way of doing things, I have to admit, Germany’s school system – and Japan’s – are much more sober and realistic models. Not everyone is entitled to a four-year college education, or the means by which to attain it. Instead students are placed on tracks that correspond to their actual abilities.

    Some think these models are too rigid. Indeed, I was so terrible at math as a grade school student that I might have been unjustly relegated to a lower track. So obviously I would want a flexible system that takes a students particular strengths and weakness into account instead of relying upon quantitative test scores to determine everything. But this is what we would get in a society comprised of private and home schools, I think.

    We would stop degree inflation and devaluation as well.

  • Tuition at private universities in Germany and Japan is comparable to state university tuition in the US. Public universities in Germany charge nominal tuition.

    I wouldn’t mind some form of voluntary busing. Abolish public school zoning and allow kids to go to any public school in the state. Schools can arrange bus service if there’s enough demand.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Abolish public school zoning and allow kids to go to any public school in the state. Schools can arrange bus service if there’s enough demand.”

    1. The best schools in the state would quickly do a Titanic from the number of kids that would be attempting to go to them.

    2. Urban school systems would face shutting down at least 15% of the schools that no one in their right mind would want to attend. The teachers who teach in these schools would be quickly assigned to other schools. If they are poor teachers, I doubt that they wouuld improve simply due to a change of scenery.

    3. Parents of kids in the best urban schools would quickly place their kids in private schools if they were able.

    4. Support for school bond initiatives would quickly collapse around the state, except for good schools a great enoough distance away that they wouldn’t have to worry about “outsiders taking over our schools.”

  • bearing says:

    From what I hear in my urban school system, which practices open enrollment (you can choose where to send your kids) and which has schools with widely different performances, the so-called “best” schools do not, actually, fill up quickly.

    Going to the neighborhood, close-to-home school is apparently a strong draw.

  • Art Deco says:

    1. The best schools in the state would quickly do a Titanic from the number of kids that would be attempting to go to them.

    Why not re-incorporate them as philanthropies governed by trustees elected by their alumni and allow them plenary authority to regulate their admissions?

    2. Urban school systems would face shutting down at least 15% of the schools that no one in their right mind would want to attend. The teachers who teach in these schools would be quickly assigned to other schools. If they are poor teachers, I doubt that they wouuld improve simply due to a change of scenery.

    Why not re-incorporate the other 85% of schools as philanthropies and allow them plenary authority to hire whom they please and fire whom they please?

    3. Parents of kids in the best urban schools would quickly place their kids in private schools if they were able.

    Schooling is a fee-for-service enterprise which producers will generate in response to demand, not a public good like bridges. Who needs a state agency as a supplier? Why not re-incorporate extant public schools as philanthropies and then have the sheriff’s department erect schools to teach (or lash in place) the incorrigibles no one else will chance?

    4. Support for school bond initiatives would quickly collapse around the state, except for good schools a great enoough distance away that they wouldn’t have to worry about “outsiders taking over our schools.”

    Why not re-incorporate the extant schools as philanthropies and have them borrow money on their own account?

    In response to concerns that public subsidies will generate the same economic and financial dynamic which obtained in medical care and higher education, why not prohibit these philanthropies from charging tuition? They can subsist on state vouchers, donations, and endowment income. If one is concerned about quality control, have the state board of regents hold mandatory examinations each year and have the secretary of state revoke the charters of schools at the bottom of the league tables.

    Sorry to be a grouch.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Arizona and other states have state wide open enrollment laws. Arizona’s law has weasel language that makes me wonder how effective it would be.

    “Arizona Open Enrollment Law.
    The State of Arizona requires that every school district must have an “Open Enrollment Policy.” Students are permitted to request enrollment in any school in the entire state regardless of geographic location. However, there are space limitations which can make transfer to some schools difficult. Each school district can adapt unique requirements, but parents do have options. Each individual school district can answer your specific questions and are required to accommodate requests if reasonably possible. An Enrollment Transfer Request is required.”

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Then what good does open enrollment across a state do if the best public schools are fully occupied? Unless some sort of lottery system was used, I would imagine that enrollment would consist overwhelmingly of students living close to the school and whose parents would have contacts with the administrators who would run the schools, not to mention members of the local school board.

  • A lottery would work. Implemented alongside charter schools, you’d have a publicly funded race to the top. It’s my understanding (perhaps erroneous) that open admissions + lottery + charter schools works in Arizona.

  • bearing says:

    And if I may repeat myself, you are *assuming* that the “best” (by what measure?) public schools will fill up quickly. It is not necessarily so. Proximity appears to be a large draw to a school that for many parents will trump other concerns.

  • RL says:

    That’s a good point Bearing. Do people relocate to be within the geographical boundaries of a good school district or do they move to a location where there are good schools close by? It doesn’t sound like much of a distinction but there is. I can’t really see someone voluntarily moving to an area with poor performing schools thinking that they’ll just haul the 20 miles every day to a better district.

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