School Daze

The national election is little more than a month away, but of late I’ve been more intrigued by our local school board race. The national story can be summed up in one sad sentence: American democracy was on life support with a near-fatal case of Crazy in January 2021, recovered, but now suffers from Long Crazy, and the next Congress promises to bring a prolonged exacerbation.

Berkeley’s school board election is also sad, but why takes more explaining.

Across the United States, school boards are under mounting siege from MAGAmaniac candidates bent on banning books and eviscerating curricula. As you might expect, that’s not the case in Berkeley, where all six candidates for the three open seats proclaim themselves champions of social justice. By social justice, the candidates mostly mean elimination of academic disparities between white and Asian kids, who as groups do well in school, and black and Hispanic kids, who as groups do less well.

This disparity has existed for generations. When I started public high school half a century ago (ulp), my entering class of a thousand was more than half black, roughly five percent puertorriqueno, and the rest white. Four years later, our graduating class consisted of five hundred students, the solid majority of which was white. Half our classmates had dropped out, most of them black and puertorriqueno.

According to the US Department of Education, nationally the 2018–19 high school graduation rate for blacks was 80% and for Hispanics 82%. That’s a wonderful improvement since my day! But blacks and Hispanics continue to lag behind the national graduation rate (86%), the white graduation rate (89%), and the Asian/Pacific Islander graduation rate (93%). Testing of nine and thirteen year-olds similarly shows that in reading and mathematics, blacks and Hispanics have improved considerably since the 1970s but perform less well than whites and Asians.

In the past fifty years experts have implemented countless programs to raise black and Hispanic academic achievement. You would think that even by accident they would have hit on something that brought blacks and Hispanics to parity, but they haven’t. Which is why I’m beginning to suspect the schools have done all they can, and the solution lies elsewhere.

Dana Suskind, a pediatrician and researcher at the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago, notes that most brain development occurs in the pre-school years, and if parents lack the time, resources, or inclination to provide their kids abundant intellectual stimulation before kindergarten, “asking teachers to try to make up the difference . . . is basically impossible.” President Biden understands this. He’s advocated for universal pre-school for three- and four-year olds and subsidies for child care. But that piece of his human infrastructure agenda was not included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, probably the last major piece of legislation he gets through Congress.

If the key to academic parity lies in the first five years of life, the school board candidates running on their social justice bona fides are misleading their prospective constituents. Not that I blame or condemn them. They’re saying what Berkeley voters want to hear instead of what they need to hear, which is what politicians everywhere do. And on the whole, it’s better to err their way than in the MAGA manner. But in a society rife with anti-intellectualism, furthering the illusion that public schools can eliminate the barriers to every child’s success will lead to even greater cynicism about education, educators, and the concept of education as a public good. As someone who dedicated his career to the defense of a public educational institution, that makes me sad in a whole different way from the national election.

Zoom image of six candidates for Berkeley, California school board in 2022.
A Zoom candidate forum for this year’s Berkeley Unified School District election. The League of Women Voters’ moderator is at top center, and the green square indicates how much time the speaking candidate has remaining to answer a question.

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Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.