Obama’s Educational Excellence Initiative


President Barack Obama recently wrote an executive order that established a White House initiative on educational excellence for black Americans that will be housed in the Department of Education. It proposes “to identify evidence-based best practices” to improve black achievement in school and college. Though black education is in desperate straits, the president’s executive order will accomplish absolutely nothing to improve black education. The reason is that it does not address the root causes of educational rot among black Americans. It’s not rocket science; let’s look at it.

The president’s initiative contains not one word about rampant inner-city school violence, which makes educational excellence impossible. During the past five years, Philadelphia’s 268 schools had 30,000 serious criminal incidents, including assaults — 4,000 of which were on teachers — robberies and rapes. Prior to recent layoffs, Philadelphia’s school district employed about 500 police officers. In Chicago last year, 700 young people were gunfire victims, and dozens of them lost their lives. Similar stories of street and school violence can be told in other large, predominantly black cities, such as Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland and Newark.

If rampant school crime is not eliminated, academic excellence will be unachievable. If anything, the president’s initiative will help undermine school discipline, because it advocates “promoting a positive school climate that does not rely on methods that result in disparate use of disciplinary tools.” That means, for example, if black students are suspended or expelled at greater rates than, say, Asian students, it’s a “disparate use of disciplinary tools.” Thus, even if blacks are causing a disproportionate part of disciplinary problems, they cannot be disciplined disproportionately.

Whether a student is black, white, orange or polka-dot and whether he’s poor or rich, there are some minimum requirements that must be met in order to do well in school. Someone must make the student do his homework, see to it that he gets a good night’s rest, fix a breakfast, make sure he gets to school on time and make sure he respects and obeys his teachers. Here’s my question: Which one of those requirements can be accomplished by a presidential executive order, a congressional mandate or the edict of a mayor? If those minimal requirements aren’t met, whatever else is done is for naught.

Spending more money on education cannot replace poor parenting. If it could, black academic achievement wouldn’t be a problem. Washington, D.C., for example, spends $18,667 per student per year, more than any state, but comes in dead last in terms of student achievement. Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was established in 1870 in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s first black public high school. From 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went off to college, earning degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Williams, Wesleyan and others. As early as 1899, Dunbar students scored higher on citywide tests than students at any of the district’s white schools. Its attendance and tardiness records were generally better than those of white schools. During this era of high achievement, there was no school violence. It wasn’t racially integrated. It didn’t have a big budget. It didn’t even have a lunchroom or all those other things that today’s education establishment says are necessary for black academic achievement.

Numerous studies show that children raised in stable two-parent households do far better educationally and otherwise than those raised in single-parent households. Historically, black families have been relatively stable. From 1880 to 1960, the proportion of black children raised in two-parent families held steady at about 70 percent; in 1925 Harlem, it was 85 percent. Today only 33 percent of black children benefit from two-parent families. In 1940, black illegitimacy was 19 percent; today it’s 72 percent.

Too many young blacks have become virtually useless in an increasingly high-tech economy. The only bright outlook is the trickle of more and more black parents realizing this and taking their children out of public schools. The president’s initiative will help enrich the education establishment but do nothing for black youngsters in desperate educational need.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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