Last week, two items came my way. I learned that Andre Goodfriend, my buddy from grade-school days, has become the United States chargé d'affaires, or deputy chief of mission, at our embassy in Budapest, Hungary. Meanwhile, it was reported that enrollment in the Phoenix Union High School District reached a 36-year high.
The district is 80 percent Hispanic and only 5 percent Anglo. As recently as 1990, the demographics were 41 percent Anglo and 40 percent Hispanic. Some 81 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — and based on my research, this is often the only meal some of them receive in a day.
What these tidings have in common is the scandalous trajectory of failure in our public education system.
This is a huge topic, and I recommend Diane Ravitch's Rein of Error and The Death and Life of the Great American School System for anyone seeking some of the best examinations of the topic by one of our great scholar-advocates. My aims are more modest.
A few observations:
Andre and I both attended Kenilworth School of the Phoenix Elementary School District No. 1 in the 1960s. Arizona had desegregated its schools — yes, the old Southern culture was once strong there — only a few years before. So Kenilworth was still heavily Anglo. But students from Franklin School came over for seventh and eighth grade, adding substantially to the number of Hispanic students. There were African-American children, too.
More importantly, Kenilworth educated all classes. I went to school with the children of future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the heirs to the Fred Harvey fortune. I went to school with children who lived in poverty south of Roosevelt. If I had to guess, much of the student body was middle-class.
But this mingling of socio-economic classes was critical. We often struggled with money, but never to pay for a good education at Kenilworth School. Very smart children were in the same classes as average and struggling students — and I would argue that all benefited from the experience.
We learned together — learned from each other — played together, hung out with each other and were all in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We learned what was appropriate in a common culture.
Almost all the teachers were superior. They did not "teach to the test." And one more thing: The building itself was inspiring, with its Greek columns and graceful lines, so unlike the prison architecture of even the good schools today. Its very physical presence invited scholarship and citizenship, even as we enjoyed all the mischief, heartbreak and sometimes delinquency of growing up.
Thus, we have Andre, ascending into the highest ranks of the diplomatic service at an important posting, a product of Arizona public education in a field that is dominated by Ivy Leaguers. I've never taken a journalism class in my life, but I clawed my way up to something close to the top of my profession. I know of many other examples where children with whom I attended school did great things. These were not impossible dreams then. Indeed, our teachers expected great things from us.
It is cruelly interesting that many baby boomers, who benefited from the zenith of both the American middle class and the public school systems, allowed both to slip away. In the case of schools, I can point to one overriding factor: Resistance to mingling of the races and the socio-economic classes. After all, nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools are more segregated than they have been in decades.
Kenilworth was a special case geographically, serving a diverse area (the same was true of Franklin, Emerson and a few other elementary schools). But the big Phoenix high schools achieved the same result. Well into the 1970s, old Phoenix Union High maintained a reputation for excellence and students at such schools at North, Central, Camelback, West and East mingled with young people from all life paths. This not only "prepared them for success in a diverse society," but showed them different paths and possibilities, gave them the stimulation and inspiration of smart classmates and friends.
Phoenix was an inviting place for Anglos fleeing forced busing in the Midwest and east, even when I was a child. It had dozens of school districts that made busing impossible, unlike a city such as Charlotte. Many of these had been rural districts before the city overtook them. A few, such as Madison, were always rich. Most were not, and never caught up.
But sprawl and the abandonment of the idea of public schools made things worse. Now some of the nationally distinguished high schools of my time, such as Coronado and Camelback, are considered stressed, "urban" institutions. The better-off Anglos moved out to districts such as Kyrene, Chandler and Higley, or put their children in private schools, "Christian academies" and charters that can cherry pick the best students.
This is hardly confined to Arizona. For example, Birmingham, Ala., may celebrate moving past its racial strife but the city's demographics have nearly flipped completely. It is a predominantly black city surrounded by white suburbs, and they have the best schools.
Money matters. Busing was never a solution — some polls even show a majority of blacks opposed it. Along with the Vietnam War, busing turned into the Waterloo of American liberalism. The better response was to increase funding and excellence for all schools. Instead, as in Arizona, the white schools are much better funded than those with large minority populations. The Kooks took a sick glee in undoing St. Janet's all-day K program, which had the potential to give all students a good start.
Arizona consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation in student spending. Lower even than Alabama and Mississippi. But the Kookocracy has ensured that public monies and tax breaks benefit the better-off districts, the charter-school racket and even private schools.
When I went back to Kenilworth for events in recent years, the student body is nearly all poor and Hispanic. As with the Phoenix Union High School District, poverty is highly concentrated. No more do poor children sit side-by-side with affluent ones. Breaking out of such confinement is nearly impossible. The devastating effects of highly concentrated poverty are most on display in Detroit. And, as the north Snottsdale types proudly say, "Phoenix is the Mexican Detroit."
The result will be ever greater inequality and lack of social and economic mobility. The causes are complex but in many cases deliberate. The consequences for the nation will be catastrophic.