What happens when a shaky bridge to the future seems determined to fuse with a nostalgic look to the past? That is a jarring question to ask in the wake of the 1996 election and the Democratic Presidential victory, but since President William Jefferson Clinton is determined to push aspects of a Republican platform, it is the appropriate question.
In early November, talk of a bipartisan Cabinet, of outreach to the Republican Congress, and of a White House-sponsored balanced budget amendment must send shudders down the spines of those who hoped that a Democratic victory would boost the prospects for both K-12 and higher education in the United States.
Indeed, some have opined that the president will seek a Republican to be Secretary of Education — even as Senate Majority leader Trent Lott has indicated that he would like to abolish the Department of Education. Thus, the 1996 election reveals several trouble spots that education activists will have to deal with and strategize around. Clearly, the question of ways the federal government deals with educational issues is high on a priority list. Do educators have a consensus that there should be a Department of Education? Should the functions be scattered through other departments, returned to the states, or eliminated? What are the educational implications of these options? The political implications?
For me, the structural issue is overshadowed by a more fundamental one raised by the passage of California Proposition 209, which may well spark a national evaluation of the efficacy of affirmative action. This evaluation will not take place in an impartial space, as the racial fault lines were drawn when then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole went on television to talk about affirmative action in the context of slavery–as if past discrimination is the only thing that people of color have to worry about. Indeed, contemporary discrimination, as evidenced by the Texaco tapes, is alive and well, but ignored in the color-blind world of Ward Connerly and California Governor Pete Wilson.
Although the Dole-Canady bill, patterned after the California Civil Wrongs Initiative, did not move through the 104th Congress, it might move through the 105th, pushed along by the momentum of the California victory. However, affirmative action proponents must ask if there is room to challenge Proposition 209 legally, and continue to use data to expose the reasons why it is important to have affirmative action (not preferences) in employment, admissions, and education.
Further, the issue of qualifications and admissions criterion must also be examined in higher education. The California Regents, clearly overstepping their bounds and dealing with the minutiae of the admissions process, seem to have determined that law school admissions shall be by LSAT numbers only.
Significant research suggests that LSAT numbers are, at best, a poor predictor of first-year law school performance and not the best or the only way to select candidates for law school. Undergraduate grades, essays, interviews, and work experience might also be considered. As the affirmative action discussion continues, the issue of standardized tests and their place in the admission process must also be considered.
President Clinton’s bipartisan dreams ought to be dashed in the educational arena. Otherwise we can expect Congress to grapple with issues like school choice, home schooling, school uniforms, and the elimination of national educational standards. Issues like public-school finance reform might languish in favor of those issues that are politically popular and pander to the notion that government, including public education, should be downsized.
I’m not suggesting that public education “as we know it” is perfect. The status of District of Columbia schools, and those in other urban areas, suggests that it is time for a national examination of the status of urban schools. Parents are right to be disturbed at some of the conditions and attitudes that confront their children in schools. My observations of the previous D.C. School Board and its shenanigans suggests that some school administrators are engaged in an ugly form of Black-on-Black crime. But it’s not race here, it’s bureaucracy, indifference, frustration.
What should happen to our urban schools? Those who buy the line that money doesn’t matter ought to take a close look at urban schools. In cities money does matter–money to keep libraries and playgrounds open, money to provide hot meals and Head Start slots for children, money to buy equipment and books, money to pay for activities like sports and music. Across the country, some schools are asking parents to pay for extracurricular activities, broadening the class divide among children, while the line that money doesn’t matter is parroted by those whose schools have modern equipment and free extracurricular activities.
President Clinton promised to build a bridge to the 21st century as he campaigned for election in 1996. Candidate Dole waxed nostalgic about the past and talked about values as if they are a substitute for vision. The reality of a Republican House and Senate may affect President Clinton’s blueprint for the 21st century bridge. Still, this President’s choice of leadership in the Department of Education, his comments in terms of education finance (not just school uniforms), and his concepts of parity and equity may determine whether a bridge is built or whether it is just conceptualized.
You can’t build a bridge to the future by kicking people of color off the bridge. To the extent that the Republican Party wrapped its arms around California Proposition 209, educational bipartisanship is extremely difficult at this time.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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