Putting the Cart Before the Horse

It seems to me that Ward Connerly put the cart before the horse in pushing Proposition 209 ten years ago.  The link is to the NPR interview conducted by Farai Chideya following an announcement that UCLA will have the smallest class of Black students in 30 years.  Connerly’s case is pretty straightforward.  The achievement gap is principally attributable to class, rather than race (as distinct from racism – because clearly racism and class are closely connected).  The solution to closing the gap is to provide poor children with the necessary resources that will allow them to compete on an equitably playing field.  Connerly argues further that at present, there are different standards for students in different ethnic groups which undermine or compromise the equity principle in education.  In addition, these different standards do not benefit those receiving positions because the basis for receiving the benefit is subject to denigration.

Connerly’s points are fairly intuitive and were argued by Booker T. Washington over a century ago.  Washington’s efforts to build Tuskegee (contrasted with DuBois’ efforts to build the Talented Tenth) were centered on ensuring that poor Blacks had an opportunity to elevate themselves and their families with a sound, basic education.  Those were the very words used by judge Leland DeGrasse in siding with parents and community members in seeking more money from New York State.  DeGrasse told Governor George Pataki that he needed to come up off of $5b or face the wrath.  The Governor, who is running for President in 2008, rolled the dice and told the judge to step off.  At this very moment, New York State has declined to meet the court ordered requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit.

Connerly capitulated the advance position that allowed poor Black and Latino students (most of whom invariably attended inferior schools where lawsuits to equalize funding were yet to be filed) to attend colleges like Berkeley and UCLA.  Did those students deserve to attend those universities?  It depends on your value system and how you define the question.  Does a wealthy student or middle class student who inherited their economic status through their parents authentically “earn” grades?  In other words, what is the ‘academic value-added’ by the effort of this individual student that exceeds the average performance of other students in the OC?  If you’re a below average student in the OC or some other ‘burb and you’re outperforming students in East LA or Compton at the top of their class, what will a test score indicate about intelligence, work ethic and merit?  Connerly’s position did not seek to answer these critical questions.

Connerly admits that he assumes the validity of standardized tests and that the solution is now press the case for equitable funding.  10 years later, California is no closer to equitable funding in its poorest schools than New York or any other state.  The disparities still exist.  In the wealthiest districts in New York, schools spend more than $19,000 per student.  In the Bronx, schools are spending less than $10,000 per student.  A court of law has ruled that this discrimination is illegal, yet the governor has stonewalled.  In California, the “governator” does even have to stonewall because Connerly and his colleagues are not pressing the issue.  And, that is Connerly’s greatest failing.

The conditions in Proposition 209 could have been grandfathered in – and approved as part of a conditional (quid pro quo) agreement to secure equitable funding for California’s poorest districts.  If Connerly could have brought an additional $5000 or more per student to poor black and Latino students + installed provisions that removed the weakest teachers from the low performing schools, he could have won the undying support of the black community.  Instead, he positioned himself as a pathetically poor substitute for Booker T. Washington.  One hundred years later, he has not learned the lesson of building an independent organization.

Connerly failed to bring in additional dollars.  He failed to build an independent educational institution to do the work schools are clearly not equipped to do – and he gave away access cards won with blood in the 60’s and 70’s.  It’s not a legacy to be proud of – but it’s doubtful that he has even a remote understanding of his shortcomings.

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