Demographics Isn’t Destiny

by Kevin D. Williamson
Memo to Republicans: Your constituents care more about the local high school than about Yemen.

The Washington Post has published its annual list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” and there are two with which I am intimately familiar: One is my own alma mater, Lubbock High School (No. 630), and the other is Lower Merion High School (No. 1,318), with which I became well-acquainted as the editor of the local newspaper. Both achieve excellent results, but the two schools, and the two communities they serve, could not be more different.

What Lubbock High and Lower Merion have in common is excellent four-year graduation rates (90 percent and 96 percent, respectively) and solid SAT/ACT averages (1,637/22.7 and 1,728/25.6). Neither school is particularly up to date in the physical-plant department: LHS students attend classes in an 80-year-old building (the class of 1991 managed without air-conditioning), while Lower Merion students make do with a structure more than a century old. Neither school has an especially large special-ed population (10 percent and 12 percent). Both are National Blue Ribbon schools.

There are some differences: LHS is a considerably larger school (2,137 students vs. 1,286), and LHS offers 35 Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, while Lower Merion offers only 20. And Lower Merion enjoys an enormous advantage in the share of its graduates attending four-year colleges: 93 percent for the Aces, only 60 percent for the Westerners. It would be more interesting to compare the rate of college graduation rather than enrollment, but the figure is not without some interest. Lubbock High students enjoy (sometimes, rather too much, if memory serves) a four-day academic week; they spend more minutes in the classroom than do students with a five-day week but have their Fridays mornings free to pursue extracurricular interests (I spent mine at the school newspaper) or to get extra academic help if needed — and the weekend starts at noon. (I would wager that a very large share of teen pregnancies at LHS are conceived between the hours of noon and 5 p.m. on Fridays.) Lower Merion boasts that 94 percent of its staff have graduate degrees, and it maintains a program to provide students with laptop computers.

The academic opportunities offered by Lubbock High and Lower Merion would be the envy of a great many public-school families across the country. But there are some further differences between the schools that are illuminating: Lower Merion is on Philadelphia’s storied Main Line, the last redoubt of the blueblood WASP establishment, an extraordinarily wealthy community in which most of the students’ parents are college graduates themselves and where local enthusiasms run to polo, steeplechase, and dressage. Lubbock is an odd mix of cotton farmers and people associated with Texas Tech University. Lubbock is a college town in which only 29 percent of those over 25 have a bachelor’s degree; its median household income is $42,584, and its poverty rate is 21 percent. In Lower Merion, 62 percent of those over 25 have a bachelor’s degree; its median household income is $68,849, and its poverty rate is less than half Lubbock’s. Some 62 percent of Lubbock High’s students are eligible for subsidized lunch programs, while only 11 percent of Lower Merion’s students are eligible.

The communities’ finances being as different as they are, it is not surprising that at $26,000 per year, Lower Merion annually spends more than three times per student what Lubbock does. And the schools are as ethnically different as they are economically different. Lower Merion students are 87 percent white or Asian; Lubbock High students are 62 percent Hispanic or black.

Together, those factors tell a remarkable story. Everybody is in favor of providing first-rate educations, but one rarely hears much intelligent discussion of the two additional questions that implies: For whom? And at what price?

We desire to provide a good education for all our students. In practice, the outcomes for poor, black, and Hispanic students are radically different from those of the overwhelmingly well-off white kids at Lower Merion. Without failing to appreciate the excellence of the work that Lower Merion does, it’s not the greatest trick in the world to provide a good education to rich suburbanites with highly educated parents at an annual cost equal to that of sending the kids to a pretty good private prep school. (Lower Merion’s spending is considerably closer to the tuition at Sidwell Friends, where the Clintons and Obamas educate their children, than it is to Lubbock’s spending.) Providing a first-class education to a largely black and Hispanic student body at relatively low cost is a much less common achievement.

Texas, as Iowahawk and others have pointed out, has a remarkable education record. Comparing Texas with Wisconsin, the very model of progressivism, Iowahawk noted that Texas achieved significantly better educational outcomes for white students, for black students, and for Hispanic students. Texas’s dropout rates for black and Hispanic students are significantly below the national averages. But on a state-to-state comparison, Texas looks pretty bad compared with Wisconsin: While Texas does a better job with white, black, and Hispanic students, in both states outcomes are radically different for white students vs. nonwhite students, and Texas’s ethnic mix is not Wisconsin’s.

From Texas to California and Massachusetts, there are schools and school districts that do (1) a lot with a lot, (2) a little with a little, (3) a little with a lot, and (4) a lot with a little. Republicans, constantly on the lookout for ways to attract Hispanic voters, might consider taking the time they have been devoting to working up desultory speeches in half-literate Spanish and taking a good hard gander at No. 4 above. Hispanic voters consistently rank education as their top concern, and voters across the board desire to know that their tax dollars are being put to the best possible use. The way to court Hispanic voters is not as Hispanic voters but as parents, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and citizens — Americans with different backgrounds from that of the typical Republican voter but with similar concerns. And if I focus on my hometown, it is in part because it is a place that is one-third Hispanic and went 70 percent for Romney-Ryan in 2012 — and 85 percent for Randy Neugebauer, whom National Journal had just identified as the most conservative member of the House. It can be done.

Republicans love ideological fights, and they should keep having them. But there is more to politics than that: Show up. Offer good services. Insist on good outcomes. And realize that most of your constituents care a great deal more about their local high school than they do about the news from Yemen. Demographics is not destiny — not in education, and not in politics.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.