Demography, destiny, elections, education

by David Safier

George Will has a column today whose first paragraph ends,

And now the Republican Party, like today's transfer-payment state, is
endangered by tardiness in recognizing that demography is destiny. [boldface added]

"Demography" is the pundit's vocabulary word of the day. Everyone's talking about the shrinking white vote, more specifically the shrinking white male vote, even more specifically the shrinking old white male vote. There are too many of those "others" — ethnic minorities, women and young people — for the Grand Old Party not to become the Grand Extinct Party if it doesn't change its ways.

For an education geek like me who has followed the tragicomic stylings of the Goldwater Institute for years, the combination of "demography" and "destiny" has a certain resonance. G.I.'s former education guy, Matthew Ladner, who is now helping Jeb Bush push his conservative education reform/educational choice agenda forward, wrote a book — really a longish pamphlet — in 2008 called "Demography is not Destiny" with a forward by his current boss, Jeb Bush. The book is a collection of charts and graphs combined with verbal smoke and mirrors trumpeting the "Florida Education Miracle." The idea is, poor and minority children can succeed if only the schools figure out how to do it right, and Florida has figured it out. The pamphlet/book was an early example of the conservative meme that schools are failing to do their job because they're not turning children who live in poverty with undereducated parents, many of whom also have the burden of being discriminated against because of their color, into high achieving readers, writers and mathematicians. Florida is doing it, the story goes, so your schools can too.

The problem is, Florida's educational miracle is not now, nor has it ever been that miraculous. At best, it's shown some promise, but even that doesn't stand up well under careful scrutiny.

This year, a paper was published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform titled, "Is Demography Still Destiny?" which looks at student achievement in New York City. The answer, unfortunately, is Yes, more often than not, demography is destiny.

[A] new study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University indicates that the college readiness of New York City high school graduates is still very highly correlated
with the neighborhood they come from. In particular, the racial composition and average income of a student’s home neighborhood are very strong predictors of a student’s chance of graduating high school ready for college.

[skip]

In spite of the city’s efforts to increase equity by expanding high school choice and creating five hundred new small schools and one hundred charter schools, college readiness rates are still largely predicted by the demographics of a student’s home neighborhood. This suggests that the strategies of school choice and school creation are not sufficient to create the equity that the administration has envisioned.

The Republican Party, after years of thinking it could remain viable without expanding its base, is beginning to worry that it is destined to lose its political power if it ignores the country's changing demographics. But conservatives, supported by educational "neo-liberals" like Obama's Ed Supe Arne Duncan — and to some extent Obama himself — are fighting against the idea that societal changes are a vital component of improved school achievement. It's possible, they maintain, to find enough "great teachers" and create enough "great schools" that we can eradicate demographic destiny. The problem is, it's a dangerously mistaken notion to maintain that charter schools and vouchers and large classes taught by "great teachers" are all we need to solve our educational problems and stimulate social and economic mobility for our children. So long as the conservatives can convince enough of the population, along with the neo-liberals, that their version of "educational reform" and "school choice" — in other words, privatization — can work wonders, we're in danger of doing permanent harm to our system of public education while we ignore the root problems of poverty, discrimination and growing income equality.

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