John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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The Real Problem with Our Public Schools

Posted on March 14, 2010
In a brilliant maneuver to change the subject from health care, the President announced that he was going to start talking about reforming President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

The premise of NCLB is that if a school is failing to deliver real results for students, that it stops getting financial aid from the federal government.  NCLB is not very popular with school administrators or labor unions because they don’t like the idea that their jobs hinge on the performance of a bunch of kids that may have very little interest in learning in the first place.

That is a valid criticism, because sometimes the problem is not with the teachers.  Sometimes the problem starts with the students.  Okay, that is not exactly fair.  Sometimes the problems start with what the students are being taught by their parents (or in many cases, their parent).

In a fascinating story that appeared in the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine, “Are Some Races More Equal Than Others?”, written by Abigail Thernstrom and Tim Fay, the authors highlight a persistent problem in American urban schools, racial discrimination.  And this is not the kind of racial discrimination that civil rights activists usually like to talk about.  This is the kind of discrimination where black kids target Asian kids with actual violence in schools in Philadelphia -- and I am certain -- in other places.

As the story relates:

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has just announced a new push to enforce civil rights laws to combat discrimination in our schools. In the last decade, he said, his department’s Office for Civil Rights “has not been as vigilant as it should have been . . . But that is about to change.” His remarks were made March 8 in a speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the 45th anniversary of the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”



The Department of Justice (DOJ) is also eager to break with the allegedly lax civil rights policies of the Bush administration. Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, has appointed a new education section chief, Anurima Bhargava, who comes to the department directly from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), where she had been director of education practice since 2006. "I am excited she will be joining us as we continue our efforts to restore and transform the civil rights division," Perez declared.



Duncan wants to eliminate racial disparities in education in general, including in student discipline in particular. Undoubtedly, Perez does as well. But what will they do in response to a formal complaint filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in the wake of serious black-on-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School (SPHS)? AALDEF has charged that the district acted with "deliberate indifference" to the harassment of Asian students and with "intentional disregard" of their welfare.



Will the Obama administration act aggressively to ensure Asian rights to a public education free of intimidation and actual violence—surely a basic civil right? Or will such action be taken only when blacks are the victims rather than the perpetrators? If the administration acts in the interest of the Asians, black students will be singled out as racially hostile troublemakers—a conclusion that neither the Department of Education nor the DOJ will welcome, if Duncan’s announcement means what it says.



The Philadelphia story has largely been covered by just the local press. Interethnic tension—of which there is much—is generally ignored in the media, as is the level of violence and disorder in an appalling number of urban schools. And yet everyone who followed the Rodney King riots knows there has been no love lost between Asian shopkeepers and black residents in Los Angeles, for instance. And they know, as well, that learning cannot take place in chaotic environments.



SPHS houses roughly 1,000 students, 70 percent of whom are black, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white. The Asians are by no means a homogenous group and speak a variety of languages, the most common of which are Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Cambodian; 12 percent of these Asian students are classified English Language Learners.



According to Asian advocates, the whole Philadelphia district has been plagued by harassment and violence towards Asian students for many years. At SPHS, the assaults have occurred in the cafeteria line, in bathrooms, in stairwells, on school buses, and elsewhere. The incidents ran the gamut from verbal abuse, physical intimidation, blocking doorways, cutting in line ahead of Asian students in the cafeteria, use of anti-Asian racial epithets, and more serious physical abuse including shoving, kicking, and punching—sometimes at the hands of more than one assailant. Advocates have accused school officials, including school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Principal LaGreta Brown (both black) of indifference to the plight of Asian students in their charge.”

Of course, you could make the case that black-on-Asian violence isn’t any worse than black-on-black violence.  How many times over the last year have we seen videos of black kids beating black kids to death, including that famous case in the President’s home-town of Chicago, where the Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was stomped to death by his classmates.

You can’t reform schools unless you have students who are not afraid for their lives when they go to class.  When did it become normal to put metal detectors at the entrances of high schools? How can teachers teach when they themselves fear for their own safety?

The President’s Civil Rights team is now looking at ways to once again desegregate public schools, sometimes looking beyond the city borders to compel white kids to go to the same schools as black kids.  But that isn’t going to work.  White kids (and Asian kids), especially those who are lucky enough to have parents with some resources, are going to continue to do what they have done for the last forty years.  They are going to send their kids to schools where they know their kids are free from persistent violence.  And they usually make that judgment based on the racial make-up of the school.  They are going to send their kids to parochial schools or private schools, or they are going to move further and further away from wherever the threat is perceived to be coming from.

The problem of school violence isn’t a problem of racism or a problem of poverty.  This is problem of a complete decline in values, in discipline, in morality and in civil society.   There are many causes, chief among them the breakdown in the basic family unit.  When kids don’t have fathers at home to serve as both role models and disciplinarians, kids turn to other less helpful people to serve as role models and protectors.   And the simple fact is that fathers have not been sufficiently encouraged by law and by society to take responsibility for their progeny, especially in the African-American community.  That was a gift of the welfare state, by the way, and by the conceit that single mothers don’t necessarily need men around to help discipline the kids.

Bill Cosby has been talking about this for at least a decade.  He has taken some friendly fire for his blunt talk about the decline of family values in the Black America.

Why am I singling out black America, when other communities, like the Latino community, face similar challenges?  Well, because black America is facing a catastrophic economic depression.  Because the Justice Department is trying to find a scapegoat for the process of re-segregation.  And because, President Obama has a unique role in helping to provide leadership in developing real solutions to the persistent problems that plague our nation’s schools.

Sure, let’s reform our schools.  I am all for that.  But let’s not kid ourselves that kids can succeed just by going to schools that more effectively teach to the test.  The President needs to take a stronger stance on behalf of safer schools and speak out against the violence that all too often starts at home and ends up in the hallways and classrooms of our most at risk schools.