Local Government and Public Education

In 1965, I began to teach in this field, and I soon directed my attention to public schools.  I was elected to the Ann Arbor Board of Education in 1970.  The campaign was fun and I did well because Bessie was the poo-bah of the Girl Scouts and folks reckoned that if she could put up with me, it would be alright for me to be on the School Board.  It was also the case that we ran a great full-page ad on Sunday before election that featured this picture of me and Will:

I brought my school board experience into my teaching.  I constructed a seminar entitled Equality and Education, and taught it at Columbia as well as Michigan.  Among the distinguished visitors I was able on occasion to rope in was John Rawls, the theorist of Justice.  I compiled a set of readings running to 2500 pages and embracing every relevant academic discipline.  I gave up the seminar when I moved to Duke as a dean and have not studied the subject since. 

I started with the premise that Brown was about de jure segregation and was not a promise of equal results in schools.  That could not be achieved by judicial decree.  I learned that teaching children to read is an art, not a science.  And that teachers need the support of parents.  It was the latter point that turned me around on bussing.  I was ardently in favor of metropolitan bussing and tried to help Detroit in its big case on that subject.  But it became increasingly apparent that this was not a solution to the problems of minority children.

I was also involved in the school finance litigation in Michigan.  One could not deny the inequity of allowing the children in the wealthy neighborhood of Grosse Pointe to receive schooling that cost much more than that of children in poor districts, i.e., those with low tax bases and populations unable or reluctant to pay property taxes.  On the other hand some of the richest districts served poor children.  And the opportunity for parents to raise their own property taxes tended to cement their interest in schools and willingness to lend support to teachers.  I admire the more flexible scheme put in place in recent years in Wake County, North Carolina, and revile the assault upon it launched in 2010 by a newly-elected majority of that school board.

An adventure was my offer to represent the Inkster School District, which was one of the poorest in Michigan in tax base and revenue per student, and which adjoined Dearborn, the richest district in tax base and revenue per student.  I told the Inkster Board that a strong case could be made for consolidation, which would result in a four-fold increase in the money spent on their children.  I was almost run out of town.  The predominantly African-American parents of Inkster did not want to entrust their children to the predominantly white Dearborn schools.

I did not forsake my interest in public schools.  I served on the board of the Durham Public Education Network in the 1990s, and for a time tried my hand at mentoring fourth graders at our neighborhood school.  I was not very good at it.  In 2010, I became a member of the Schools Committee of the Durham People's Alliance and hope to lobby local government for better schools

I do not have a solution to the reading problem.  Funding for public schools should be generous and we should hope for results.  We should avoid asking teachers to use their influence with children in ways that may diminish the support they receive from parents.  Prayer in schools is unwise for that reason, and so are other things that �liberals� sometimes want schools o do. 

The federal government knows no more about teaching reading than I do.  It should, as it long did, provide extra funds for school districts with poor children, but it would otherwise do well to butt out.  I am skeptical about the use of standardized testing to the degree now common.  I agree with Diane Ravitch and some other experts that reasonably standardized curricula are desirable.

More resources should be invested in community colleges and other job-training institutions.  Every effort should be made to provide skill training to those young people who do not prosper in the public school.  In today�s world, those with no saleable skill are in deep trouble, and they should at least know that the Republic is ever ready, without charge, to help them find a place where they can be useful and be rewarded.  That is good for business as well as the young people, and may even save the public fisc on the costs of prisons.  And there are many college graduates who also need some of this sort of help; a quarter of the students in the community colleges in North Carolina Senate District 18 are college graduates searching for a saleable skill.

As a result of my attendance of meeting at the National Academy of Science, I became attentive to the efforts of  the science establishment to prevent the religious right from using public schools to qualify or rebut the teaching of Charles Darwin.  As a former school board member, I am prone to favor local government as a forum for working the matter out.  My essay disfavoring the federal courts as the place to resolve the dispute was published in 2008.  It is entitled Freedom to Err.  It advances the thought that in the context of public education, the intellectual arrogance of elite scientists is a cause of home-schooling and a disservice to good science teaching in public schools.

In 2009, I became a member of the Schools Committee of the Durham People's Alliance.  I hope that I can help maintain the political base of the members of the Durham School Board who are constructively engaged in improving our public schools.  I urge them not to be overborne by standardized testing or the class bias manifested in recent decisions of the school board in Raleigh.

mailto:pdc@law.duke.edu index.htm

My few published work on this subject includes:

On Egalitarian Overzeal: A Polemic Against the Local School Property Tax Cases, 1971 U. Ill. L. F. 232 (1972) republished: Law Review Digest, 1973 Education and Law, 1972

Financing the American Dream: Equality and School Taxes, 73 Colum. L. Rev. 1227 (1973)

The Proposed Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1973, Law Quad Notes (1973)

Freedom to Err, Bill of Rights Journal (forthcoming 2008)


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