After the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals officially declared that the Rockford school-desegregation lawsuit would come to an end on June 30, 2002 (see Letter From Rockford, June), many Rockfordians simply assumed that a return to local control would solve all of our problems. But even when court-ordered spending has ended, the Rockford school district will still shell out over $9,000 per student, test scores will still be lower than they were when the lawsuit began, and students will still attend schools where violence is an everyday occurrence. Just as the 800-pound gorilla of judicial taxation prevented many of us from seeing that the school district’s non-court-ordered spending has increased dramatically over the past 12 years, the draconian “remedies” ordered by the federal district court obscured the reality that Rockford’s schools, even without federal intervention, would likely have undergone a major crisis over the past decade.
The problems faced by District 205 are rooted not in racism, as the court alleged, but in school consolidation. As Bill Kauffman writes in his book, With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America, “The number of school districts in America has free fallen: 127,531 in 1932; 83,718 in 1950; 40,520 m 1960; 17,995 in 1970; 15,709 in 1980; 14,556 in 1992.” In the space of 60 years, during which the population of the United States rose by over 60 percent, the number of school districts plummeted by over 88 percent.
Here in Rockford, the school-consolidation craze began even earlier, about 1914. Each round of consolidation brought more school closings, more busing, less parental involvement, more reliance on state and federal funding. Finally, in 1989, it brought the closing of West High School and a court order mandating busing for racial balancing. Today, District 205 encompasses over 170 square miles, and 27,000 students are enrolled in 39 elementary schools, six middle schools, and only four high schools. That is one high school per 42.5 square miles. The district considers a school’s “walk zone” to be anywhere within a radius of 1.5 miles—an area only slightly over seven square miles. Everyone else must be bused.
My own experience as a public-school student was very different. In the midst of the consolidation frenzy, something remarkable had happened in my hometown in West Michigan: We deconsolidated our school district. When my father was growing up, Spring Lake was part of the Grand Haven school district. Although he attended elementary school in Spring Lake, he was bused across the Grand River to Grand Haven for junior high and high school. But in the mid-60’s, the Spring Lake school district was spun off from Grand Haven. Over the next 30 years, despite the fact that Spring Lake and Grand Haven are demographically comparable, the schools in my hometown consistently outperformed Grand Haven’s schools academically. (Grand Haven had the advantage in sports.) The biggest differences? Grand Haven’s district was ten times as large as Spring Lake’s, and Grand Haven spent more money per pupil than we did.
As Bill Kauffman writes,
a growing, by now impressively stout body of evidence indicates that small schools—”those enrolling no more than 400 students in high school, for instance”—”may provide better educations than their larger counterparts, as a function (at least in part) of their small size.”
By that standard, in fact, the Spring Lake school district was on the large side, with about 600 students in high school.
If the evidence indicates that smaller is better, why has there been such a relentless push for school consolidation? Proponents used to argue that larger districts are “more efficient” (at what?) and that they save money (District 205 is the third largest in Illinois, and per-pupil costs rank among the top ten). Today, however, they are more likely to justify’ creating massive Columbine-style schools for social reasons, combining consolidation with desegregation.
Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Rockford schools case, told Gannett News Service on July 17 that “In very few states do white students have significant contact with non whites. We have a very serious problem when the now-majority group isolates itself from minority groups.” Another sociologist, John Logan of the University of Albany, argued that this situation presents an educational problem: “We expect children will have to succeed in a multiethnic, multiracial world, but we’re raising them in school districts where they don’t get that multiracial experience.” Orfield attacked the very concept of smaller, neighborhood schools, telling Gannett that, “if the promise of returning to neighborhood schools means systematic inequality, the country ought to know about it,” and urging the media to devote more attention to the issue.
In the school desegregation and consolidation battles, the true intentions of the proponents of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” are laid bare. What could be more diverse than an American public school system composed of small neighborhood schools? To the extent that ethnic neighborhoods still exist, such schools could be become centers of particular ethnic cultures—this one, Swedish; that one, Polish; the one a few blocks over, Mexican. Despite their rhetoric, however, multiculturalists would be horrified by such schools. They really want the “products” of public schools to be the cultural equivalent of the Unitarian Universalist Church: generically American—liberal, rootless, interchangeable. Anyone with a different vision of education is, ipso facto, a “racist”—which is why Ted Biondo and Patti Delugas (the outgoing “conservatives” on the Rockford school board) dare not mention the possibility of breaking up District 205. ‘
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