Are Demographics the Nation’s Destiny?

Disturbing motives behind current reforms point to a resegregated student population by Gene V Glass

Within the span of a couple months in 2005, Ariel Sharon and Pat Buchanan, two individuals whose views on Israel could not have been more different, uttered the same words while discussing the Middle East: “demographic imperative.”

Who can dispute that numbers matter in a democracy? And nothing so closely approximates a true democracy as the governance of America’s public schools. Who can question the sheer force of voting strength as it shapes politics and policy? In the end, will numbers win out in a contest with higher values? In what direction is the American voting public evolving and how will their circumstances and their political power shape our public schools?

Driving Factors
The picture of the American voting public at the beginning of the 21st century was being painted as early as 1900 when technological genius started to reshape American life.

First, the invention of artificial fertilizers so increased the productivity of farmers that the number of hands needed to feed America was sharply reduced. An agrarian society quickly migrated to cities and urban/suburban America was born. In 1900, 60 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms; by 1995, 98 percent lived in cities and suburbs. On the farm, more children meant more help with the work. In the city, with each new child, the family’s standard of living dropped another notch. Fertility (the number of live children born to women) dropped from around 5 in 1900 to 3.1 in 1976 and to 1.9 in 2002.

As America was changing from a rural to an urban society, medical technology was making undreamed of discoveries. Pharmaceuticals (pills) and surgical techniques were extending life expectancy. In 1910, a person attaining the age of 65 — and many did not — could expect to live about another 10 years. In 2000, that person’s expected number of remaining years was more than 18.

The wish to limit fertility was given a boost by the introduction of the first birth control pill, Enovid, in 1957. Today, the white fertility rate in the United States is well below replacement level. Were it not for Hispanic fertility (3.11) and immigration from Latin America, the country’s population would be only slightly greater than it was in 1985.

Finally, the invention by an IBM engineer of the magnetic data strip on a plastic card in 1960 revolutionized America’s habits of spending and saving. Small unsecured loans, essentially credit card debt, turned Americans from savers to spenders. The idea of setting aside a portion of one’s salary each month to purchase a hi-fi set strikes modern Americans as quaint.

Today, three-quarters of the nation’s households have credit cards, and the average family owns eight cards. In 2005, the total credit card debt in America exceeded $2,500 for every man, woman and child. And worse, the average baby boomer turning 60 in 2007 had net worth, including equity in their home, of only $110,000.

The portrait of the modern American populace created by the forces of 100 years of technological and demographic change is this: America is growing older, browner and deeper in debt. At the same time, our public schools are growing distinctly more Hispanic and serving increasing numbers of poor children, many of whom encounter English as a second language. In the western quarter of the country today, approximately a third of all K-12 students are Hispanic. Forty percent of the K-12 student population today is composed of racial or ethnic minority students.

Endless Debates
My background in the empirical evaluation of education programs leads me to believe the major debates today — school vouchers, charter schools, open enrollment, tuition tax credits, bilingual education — are not really about what people think they are about. They are not really about preparing the next generation of workers to compete with China or India or about moving America’s 4th graders up the ladder of international test results. These debates are about cutting the costs of public education and turning some public school experiences into “quasi-private” schooling for the children of a privileged few.

The research literature on such things as the effectiveness of voucher programs or charter schools is clear about only one thing: If there are differences, they are so small that even the world’s experts cannot agree what they are.

It is not student learning that keeps these debates alive, but quite a different set of motives. An aging, white voting public wants lower taxes and distance between themselves and the burgeoning minority population that depends on publicly financed services.

Cheaper and Private
Why do these debates persist year after year without any progress toward a solution? As one successful presidential candidate during an earlier campaign put it: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Charter schools and private schools that would honor a voucher are nothing if not cheaper than traditional public education. With stripped down curricula and underpaid teachers, they represent the Wal-Mart reform. Bilingual education is so contentious a debate partly because truly bilingual teachers in a free market could command significantly higher salaries than their monolingual counterparts.

Arizona, embroiled in a 15-year legal battle over the education of the state’s 150,000 English language learners, is fighting over a $260 million difference in estimates of what it will cost to comply with the orders of a federal court. Arizona’s school administrators say $300 million. The state superintendent of public instruction, an elected official, says $40 million.

Tuition tax credits are an advantage for upper-middle-class families. They can use the credits to offset tuition at private and religious schools. Even high-stakes testing is rife with economic implications. The cost of high-stakes testing is clear at one level and more subtle at a deeper level. The tests can be built, printed, distributed and scored for an entire state for half the cost of building a single elementary school. It is a reform much appreciated by tax-conscious politicians.

The less-obvious long-range impact of high-stakes testing can be discerned in the questions that high school students immediately ask when confronted with the test. “If I pass this test, and this test is what I have to pass to graduate from high school, then why do I have to stay here after passing it?” To people whose understanding of all that an education confers upon a student is as benighted as the politicians who impose these tests, the question is taken seriously; and they and the larger public ask themselves, “Yes, why continue to pay for schooling when a student can show on a test he or she knows what they need to know to succeed?”

In spring 2007, a bill passed quickly through both the Arizona House and Senate authorizing the payment of $1,500 in college scholarship money to high school seniors who complete required hours for graduation and pass the AIMS high school graduation test, provided they leave school before the beginning of their final semester. The cost of maintaining a high school senior in school for a semester is about $3,500. Trading a $3,500 for a $1,500 expense is an exchange most politicians would be happy to make.

With each of these reform debates, the issue is not about quality education, it’s about cost and taxes.

Contemporary debates over education reform are driven by a second set of motives less admirable than thriftiness. A host of popular movements in education, including home schooling, are resegregating our public schools along racial and ethnic lines. Nothing should concern us more. Where charter schools locate in multiracial, multiethnic neighborhoods, they become an avenue of white flight such as the nation has not experienced since the 1950s. Open-enrollment policies reduce schools of their diversity. And Advanced Placement classes often create tracks distinguishable by race within a single school.

Disturbing Future
By the year 2050, one of every four Americans will be Hispanic. There are no economic trends apparent that portend easy financial times for public institutions. Today’s subprime mortgage crisis promises to reverberate through the nation’s economy for years, if not decades.

Will the voters of tomorrow discover a new sense of charity toward those less fortunate? Will they come to see their well-being as inextricably tied to that of all Americans? The demographic imperatives of America in 2050 are driving us toward a nation in which some public schools offer a lesser quality education to the poor, many of them minorities, while other public schools offer a quasi-private education to the privileged.

Is this future our destiny or merely one of many possibilities? The challenges to the stewards of our public schools have never been greater.

Gene Glass, Regents’ professor in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education at Arizona State University, is the author of Fertilizers, Pills, and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America. E-mail: glass@asu.edu