Classless Classrooms


Parents at a Los Angeles public school raise money to hire Berlitz instructors to teach students Spanish. The lessons are a hit: English-speaking kids enjoy learning the language. Their immigrant classmates get a chance to shine. Everybody is happy.

A story of parent initiative and intercultural success from the pages of the L.A. Times? No way. This is hush-hush stuff recounted to me at a party. The parents can't let the school board find out about their efforts, or this innovative program will come to an abrupt end. We can't let one school have Berlitz classes if other schools can't have them. That's official policy.

American public schools are run on the old principle invoked by every teacher who ever caught a student snacking in class: "If you're going to eat that, you'll have to share with the rest of the class." Schools are the last bastion of unbridled egalitarianism.

Nowadays, you don't hear too many people pushing equality for equality's sake. Sure, politicians talk about helping the poor. They even talk about taxing the rich to do so. But the point is to help the poor, not just to make everyone the same. Nihilistic leveling has been out of fashion at least since the Khmer Rouge convincingly demonstrated that the only true equality is found in the grave.

But among many public-school "educators," the terms of the debate haven't changed. Equity remains the cardinal virtue, regardless of consequences. You can't try to improve education for anyone unless you improve it for everyone.

"You don't gain more equity by putting more money into an advantaged school," says Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in a New York Times article on private donations to public schools. His oddly named organization, which studies the problems of the nation's largest urban school districts, takes a dim view of such donations: "There's always a balance, and boards have to find it by developing a policy that assures that whatever the source of money, schools have the same resources available to them."

This attitude is as understandable as it is outrageous. True, public schools are not in business to promote equity; they're in business to promote learning. But as "public servants," administrators too often confuse equity with fairness. If all schools are equal—even equally bad—no one can say government officials are playing favorites. If all schools have the same programs, angry parents are less likely to pester the school district to make sure their kids get the best.

The educationists' ideology of safe mediocrity extends to arguments about why we can't risk giving parents choice about where to send their kids to school—especially if that choice includes tax credits or vouchers for private school tuition. If we let people choose, the argument goes, all the good, motivated students will leave the bad schools. Those schools will then be left with no one but undesirables. We have to sacrifice the good students—not just the gifted, mind you, but anyone interested in learning—to some-how help the bad students. How exactly bad students are supposed to benefit from this scheme is never clear. In fact, if an L.A. school district specialist (in gifted education!) hadn't made this argument to me, I'd think it was a straw man.

Too many public educators have lost sight of a basic truth: If you can make some students better off without making other students worse off, that's good. Any educator worthy of that overused title ought to seize the opportunity—even if the beneficiaries happen to be wealthy, gifted, well-behaved, or just plain diligent. That our public schools actually discourage improvements indicates that there is something very, very wrong.