The School Question

Ninety years ago, a woman named Caroline Pratt started a school for a few children from Italian and Irish working-class families in the Greenwich Village section of Lower Manhattan. She took this step because she thought the neighborhood public schools were humdrum and ineffective. Her experiment was forthrightly called The Play School. It had no fixed curricula, no regular classes, no exams and no grades. The children happily spent their time in play activities and received formal instruction when they wanted it. When they were pretending to be shopkeepers, for instance, they found they needed to know how to count. Years later, Miss Pratt noted innocently that when the children were about 7 years old, they “became very demanding, owing to pressure, perhaps, from home, to learn to read and write.”

That little school belongs to the story of the Progressive Education Association that flourished in the 1930’s, but the questions it raised are at least as insistent today as they were in 1914. In the lower-income areas of big cities like New York and Chicago and in all the areas of impoverished small cities like Camden, N.J., and East St. Louis, Mo., the public schools have for years been judged to be failing. How can they be rescued?


During the presidential campaign that has already unofficially begun, national security and jobs will very likely be the heavyweight issues, but the performance of U.S. public education will surely get some attention. The failures of the schools, particularly those in the inner cities, will be treated in the form of agitated exhortations that are long on rhetoric and short on workable specifics.

Voters appraising these discussions should keep three truths in mind. First, it makes sense to say that many public elementary and secondary schools do a good job. Along with families and churches, these schools are helping to pass on to the rising generations the substance of the pluralistic and many-layered American culture. They satisfy parents, at least in middle-class and affluent communities. There is no clamor in Scarsdale, Grosse Pointe or Beverly Hills for the radical reformation that The Play School attempted.

Second, it is fair to say that in some respects, public education is in far better shape today than it was in 1914. A century ago 14 states, almost all in the South, had not yet passed compulsory education laws; and when they did so, the requirements were minimal. Texas, for instance, established in 1916 a compulsory period of 60 days’ schooling for all children. No doubt the term was actually longer in many schools, but this need not have been so in the rundown and segregated schools provided for African Americans. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated school systems in May 1954, such systems were being maintained in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

That points to a third conclusion. Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have the primary responsibility for education; they, in turn, delegate the running of schools to the local school districts. More than 90 percent of the money for public schools comes from state or local taxes. Because funds are derived at the local level mostly from property taxes, there are huge differences between expenditures for schools in wealthy suburbs and those in poor city neighborhoods.

If these urban schools are to be improved, they must be given not just an equitable share of public funds but large grants of special supplementary monies. They need to replace decaying buildings in which the classrooms are dirty, the ceilings leak and the toilets do not work. They need to attract first-rate teachers by offering them substantial bonuses. They need to develop a network of cooperation with churches and social agencies to counteract the misfortunes of dysfunctional families.

Of course, such reforms will be opposed by taxpayers elsewhere and by teachers’ unions, which hate anything that looks like merit pay. Still, there is some precedent for an effort of this sort. In the early 1950’s, Southern states perceived that the U.S. Supreme Court was chipping away at segregated school systems by insisting upon literal fulfillment of “separate but equal.” These states began hurry-up programs to reduce discrepancies between teachers’ salaries in white schools and black schools and to provide new buildings and new equipment for the latter schools. In 1953-54, for instance, South Carolina allocated $93 million for school building funds, of which $62 million went to what were then called Negro schools.

Federal money now accounts for about 7 percent of the states’ school budgets. Suppose the presidential candidates were to announce that they plan to ask Congress to give most of these funds to those urban schools that are de facto racially segregated because of housing patterns. That might not convert the state legislatures, but it would surely get their attention.

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