Everyone in the United States, I think, takes it for granted that certain towns have better schools than others. Nearly everyone would acknowledge that the better schools come with the wealthier towns. If you’re wealthy enough, you move out to the suburbs, or you send your kids to private schools. And practically everyone knows that the price of admission to the wealthy towns is that you own an expensive home: wealthy suburbs aren’t generally filled with tiny condos.
I’d like to contrast this near-universal understanding with the quite remarkable silence around it in American politics. And I’m not making a substantive point, but rather a point about our rhetoric. I was reminded of this when I was thinking about the parts of Hillary Clinton’s book that were boilerplate political material. Boilerplate is, practically by definition, not substantively interesting, but it’s rhetorically interesting to note what’s allowed to be boilerplate in this country and what’s not.
So Hillary is allowed to say that she’s, essentially, a Methodist girl whose parents taught her the value of hard work. If you riff on this for 200 pages, you get half of her book. American rhetoric is filled with this sort of thing. We love Stand and Deliver-type stories, where the underdog works real hard and eventually comes out on top.
Presidential candidates are supposed to talk about individuals, not about systems. And they’re supposed to talk optimistically. This is why Hillary is allowed to talk about this person or that person whom she met on the campaign trail, but not about the forces at work underneath that everyone knows: she’s allowed to say that she met (making up a thing here) a proud young black woman born into poverty in Harlem who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and is now about to graduate from Georgetown Law, but is not allowed to talk about the children of upper-middle-class parents who managed to get out of Harlem, move to the suburbs, and have a much easier path into Georgetown.
Part of this is, of course, that the country has a deep commitment to local schooling. I saw this when I was growing up in Vermont: the court recognized that wealthier towns had better schools, acknowledged that this was inequitable, and ordered the legislature to do something about it. The result was Act 60, which angered people all over the state: growing up in my wealthy town, I heard it said that we were being penalized for “being willing to spend more on our students” than poorer towns. Willingness to spend is one way to put it; ability to spend would be another.
Point being that there’s a fairly deep consensus in this country that towns should be allowed to control their own schooling, without interference from any higher levels of government. If a presidential candidate advocated that the Department of Education should work to ensure that schools in rural Mississippi are as good as those in suburban New York City, he or she would be quickly laughed out of the race.
In a lot of ways Americans are committed to condemning children based on the sins of their parents. If you can’t afford to buy a home in an expensive suburb, too bad for your kids; they’ll have to make do with the crappy local school whose ceilings are caving in.
The rhetoric may share a lot of background with Americans’ baffling support for repealing the estate tax. Years ago I read a book — probably Unequal Democracy — which noted the consistent, long-running support in the American electorate for getting rid of the estate tax, even though the vast, vast majority of Americans will never be subject to it. This is connected to American optimism: I may not be wealthy enough to be hit by the estate tax now, but one day I will be. Likewise: it sucks that I have to send my kid to the crappy neighborhood public school, but one of these days I’ll be wealthy enough to afford to live in the suburbs or send my kid to private school. In the meantime, let’s not do anything to weaken the link between wealthy towns and good schools.
Another piece of the rhetoric around schooling might have to do with teacher’s unions. Candidates are allowed to attack bad teachers as the center of the problem, because attacking the school-financing system, or attacking children, are off-limits. If you’re a liberal presidential candidate, and you attack the teachers and attack their unions, then maybe you peel off a few conservatives who praise you for your “tough” stand.
None of this engages substantively with any of these points; that’s deliberate. Smarter people than me have made the substantive argument elsewhere. See Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, about the widespread drive to privatize schools; Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, whose central idea is, in short, “It’s the segregation, stupid”; and then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, which advocates for sundering the link between “where the good schools are” and “where wealthy people live”. (I wonder if now-Senator Warren still supports that.) For a take on the morality of sending your kids to private schools even while you know that it would be collectively better for us to all send our kids to public schools, try How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.