In the most recent issue of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Benjamin Herold describes the broken pipeline between secondary education and college in Philadelphia. Money quote:
Of the 145 students who started 9th grade at [Benjamin Franklin HS in North Philadelphia] in fall 2005, only 17 enrolled in a four-year college, according to new National Student Clearinghouse data provided to the Notebook by the School District.
Citywide, only 25 percent of students who started 9th grade in one of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools that year have enrolled in any postsecondary education, compared to almost 80 percent of students who started at the city’s most selective magnet high schools.
In other words, schools in Philly are deeply stratified. If you aren’t admitted to the one of the city’s handful of magnet schools, it is unlikely that you will enroll in college, much less graduate.
This piece of data serves as even greater evidence of the crisis today in urban education. If we can say with some confidence that a 9th grader will not graduate college based purely on their school, there is something wrong with the system. As ed reformers continue to argue about next steps, I am reminded of the timeless Voltaire quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” We need to make small, incremental improvements to our schools and abandon the quixotic attempt to design a perfect reform. As adults squabble about the merits of charters and vouchers and the symbolic importance of traditional public education, students return to terrible schools, day after day. Whether you want to measure the failings of our educational system in terms of crime rate, college graduation, lifetime earnings, or test scores, we can’t forget that those numbers are composed of kids, kids that are being failed by a system by no fault of their own. Inaction is inexcusable.
Since the eruption of news about same-sex marriage in the past week, I have seen an increasing use of national polling data as evidence that the practice should be legalized. And on its face, it makes sense: there has been a precipitous rise in support for same-sex marriage in the last several years, and recent polls show more support than opposition. If it’s what the American people want, shouldn’t it be put in place?
Despite its elegance, that reasoning is the direct opposite of how our government was intended to function. In The Federalist #10—one of the most important theoretical foundations of American democracy, and a personal dorky obsession—James Madison warns against the dangers of “faction” in democratic society. In his words, a faction is a group of people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion”; in modern terms, this could be anything from a political party or major interest group to a handful of people interested in protecting a forest. Madison isn’t terribly concerned about factions that are in the minority, simply because a vote should stop their views from becoming law if they are abhorrent. But a faction in the majority is a completely different issue:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
If a faction is in the majority, it can potentially dominate the minority and work against the public good. “The great object”—in other words, the plan for government, which we now call the U.S. Constitution—of the Founders was to stop that from happening. Our government was designed for the purpose of preventing majorities in support of single issues from imposing its will over the public. Slight national support for same-sex marriage is a perfect example of this.
Now, before you tear me apart, I want to note that I am pleased to see support for same-sex marriage gaining traction. But before we start screaming about injustice and how the country is “calling” for same-sex marriage, let’s remember that our government is supposed to be slow and deliberate in order to prevent the periodic roiling passions of the majority to change our laws. Nobody said it was supposed to be convenient.
It may be the cynic in me, but I’ve been rolling my eyes at the outpouring of adoration of Obama after today’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. To put it bluntly, it’s about time. A couple of points:
1) I can’t ignore the political calculus here. Obama’s statement was timed two days after Biden endorsed it, and one day after the passage of the amendment in NC. Progressives in the country, particularly young voters, were encouraged and then outraged by the country’s social progress. And then who appears to brighten sorrow faces? Our President, who desperately needs to mobilize that group of people so he can win the election in 6 months.
I don’t deny the fact that politicians can legitimately be convinced to change their opinions on key issues. But I think Obama has felt this way for some time; it just hasn’t been politically convenient until now. Why else would he wait until three and a half years in the White House and close to eight as a national figure? A coincidence of that magnitude is not a change I can believe in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
2) His statement is weak, and will not result in a change in policy. He maintains that it should still be a state issue, which gives implicit support to the result in NC. This keeps same-sex marriage on the same level as abortion and slavery once were: not a right one way or the other, but controlled at the whim of the people.
I agree that this is a significant development. A sitting U.S. President who is seeking reelection has just endorsed same-sex marriage. . . and he may still win the election! But that is a result of a change in the views of the electorate, which is far more significant than that of one man, President or not. So let’s give a cheer to the progress of the American people, not to a well-orchestrated political maneuver. May the tide continue to turn.