Regional Equity via the Classroom [III]

by Martin Harris

Vermont’s role in any sort of Regional Equity campaign (whereby cities re-capture control over their presently independent suburban, exurban, and rural hinterlands) might best be judged by the percent of the State’s 2006 population which was born elsewhere and moved in: nearly 48. According to Cities of the US, 6th ed., the native-born population is a bare majority at 52.69%. We don’t know how the likely-voters break down, using the now-disparaged old labels of “woodchuck” and “flatlander” but it’s likely that those who actually re-located to leave one jurisdiction for another are more electorally active than those in-place since birth, so it’s likely (Humble Scribe guess) that the overall Vermont voter reaction to any sort of aggressive Regional Equity campaign would be (charitably) skeptical. So would the nationwide Beyond-the-Urban-Boundary BUB voter reaction. In both categories, BUB voters are predominantly those who personally (or whose parents and grand-parents) exercised considerable initiative and effort to flee the central cities and older suburbs for the exurbs and the still-rural counties where, as shown by new studies of changes in household income, active and passive, their migration has been given a new label: “Rural Gentrification”, hinting at the wealth the RE folks want to take.

The just-published Stanley Kurtz book on the RE subject “Spreading the Wealth” defines it as a strategic effort of “Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities” (book sub-title) to “reduce fiscal disparities between suburbs and cities” (p.65) and argues that RE proponents have kept a low profile so far precisely because they understand the electoral difficulties. Proponents of RE, like urbanist-scholars David Rusk (“Cities without Suburbs”) and Peter Dreier et al (“Place Matters”) theorize that the math of electoral victory might come from RE’s appeal to the self-interest (via augmented wealth-re-distribution) of central city plus inner-suburb voters who are already government clients, and would therefore approve wealth-capture from BUB taxpayers. If not, both offer their own Plan B: Rusk argues for restoring the early 19th century legal rights of cities to annex fiscally-attractive areas at will, irrespective of resident sentiment; Dreier argues (B.1) for the use of a range of new fees and charges to make BUB living unaffordable and (B.2) for the use of housing and schools to mix under-class and middle-class populations, ostensibly for the benefit of both. A critic of RE, Stanley Kurtz argues that the new Common Core K-12 educational curriculum design, already adopted by almost all States, is an unspoken part of the RE effort because a national school curriculum would disable any efforts of BUB school boards to offer their own variations of “excellence” in education. In a detailed analysis, he explains why he judges Common Core to be a vehicle for making Federal education money contingent on the equalization of school funding across municipal lines” (p.151) and why educator-analysts have judged it not to be “a meaningful improvement over existing State standards” (p. 146) and even how the new Smarter Balance Assessment Program (which Vermont has just adopted to replace NECAP achievement testing) is part of a nation-wide effort to minimize testing as a way to equalize BUB and non-BUB schools and thereby make BUB-living no better than central-city living for families with achievement aspirations for their children. And it was those aspirations which drove much of the original BUB-flight as well as the more recent first-white and then-black middle-class flight. Both erupted in direct response to parental perception of (and experience with) educational-quality threat in various intra-district and inter-district socio-economic-status enrollment-mixings, such as Burlington’s present effort, about which they were (charitably) skeptical. Given these obstacles, it’s small wonder that urbanist RE enthusiasts see court-ordered enforcement as their most likely path to BUB-capture victory.

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The legal history justifying this RE strategy isn’t of Supreme Court origin. From Brown v. Board (1954) on through Green v. New Kent County (1968), Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) and Pasadena v. Spengler (1975), SCOTUS never ordered inter-district busing, although after Brown it did order intra-district busing. either within the city, as in the District of Columbia and Denver, or within the city-county school district, as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. When the Sixth District Court confirmed a District Court’s order for inter-district busing for Detroit and surrounding suburbs, the ruling was reversed by SCOTUS on the grounds that districts with no history of de jure segregation were not obligated to join a regional integration plan. Where local judges did order inter-district busing, most famously in Kansas City, SCOTUS eventually reversed, which explains why KC was under judge-governance from 1977 on for a remarkably expensive “magnet schools” program (which didn’t attract middle-class students as promised) until ended in 2003. The lesson for Regional Equity advocates is that they need to find the right judge, and avoid SCOTUS review, to achieve erasure of municipal boundaries, as Rusk advocates in “Cities without Suburbs”. He means without independent suburbs. As the Oregon example shows, this can be accomplished by drawing Urban Growth Boundaries to include existing suburbs and adopting State-wide zoning to prevent new ones (BUB residency) as much as possible, which explains why you can’t live on your farm in Oregon unless you have at least 80 acres and are grossing $80,000 in farm revenues annually. A non-farm BUB lot must be at least 20 acres under such Smart-Growth pro-urbanist regulations.

A non-lesson for RE advocates is honesty-of-argument: inventing “good” facts and suppressing “bad” ones apparently works because it’s never challenged. Examples: 1. pro-RE author Dreier writes (p. 60) that higher per-pupil spending in BUB schools is “unfair” although he knows full well that for at least the last score of years, urban districts have usually been the higher spenders, For 2010, #1 in the nation was the District of Columbia at $18,729; US average was $10,506. The National Digest of Educational Statistics doesn’t tabulate spending for urban vs. BUB, so neither your Humble Scribe nor author Dreier can make definitive statements on the subject.

2. pro-RE author Rusk writes (p. 72) that, quoting from the well-known Coleman Report On Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966, “the educational resources provided by a child’s fellow-students are more important for his achievement than the resources provided by the school board”, the basic argument for under-class/middle-class mixing. “In the four decades since, nothing has changed,” he writes, although he doubtless read, and chose to ignore, the 1975 Coleman follow-up containing this quote: “characteristics of the lower-class classroom, namely a high degree of disorder, came to take over and constitute the values and characteristics of the classroom in the integrated school.” Which explains middle-class flight, white and then black. In short, the variable is one of class and behavior, not race. In “Disruptive School Behavior”, Judith Hanna, p. 125, she describes the phenomenon thus: “according to peer learning theory in the desegregation literature, low-income [students] learn from middle- and upper-class children; in reality, many low-income children do not choose to emulate them, and reverse learning occurs.” In Vermont, Burlington educators designing their Socio-Economic-Status mixing program should be taking careful note of all that Coleman, Hanna, et al, wrote, not just the parts that fit the RE template. With or without SES mixing, RE advocates want all the money, BUB and rural. It’s in the Federal legislative pipeline: think Federal loan guarantees to States. Part IV next week.