I’ll Take Manhattan

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One of the opinion journals I most love to read is the plucky City Journal, published quarterly by a center-right thinktank called the Manhattan Institute. City Journal produces some of the most thoughtful and well-written journalism around today. As it happens, the latest edition (Spring 2009) contains articles that bear on two of my favorite topics for reflection: demographic change and school choice.

The first piece, “Spendthrift Sunbelt States,” is by Nicole Gelinas. She reviews the current fiscal woes of three states – Arizona, Florida, and Nevada, which she calls the JetBlue states – polities that were formerly the economic envy of the nation. After years of double-digit population growth and booming economies, the JetBlues are facing slow growth, major budget cuts, and rising unemployment.

The proximate cause of their plight was of course the collapse of the real estate bubble, but the underlying cause was – what else? – dramatic increases in state spending. Like California and New York, commonly called the People’s Republics, the JetBlue states jacked up their spending at a crazy clip. Faced with the revenue drop, their choices are now the same: either cut services or increase taxes. And, as in the People’s Republics, public employee unions and other special interest groups in the JetBlue states refuse to give back an inch of the mile they have been able to grab. It would appear that the JetBlues are looking at tax increases.

Now why did states that were formerly paragons of fiscal probity turn into clones of the People’s Republics? Gelinas points to several causes, including one that was the subject of an earlier Reflection of mine (“Californication,” April): the rapid population growth of the JetBlues was driven by a massive outmigration of middle-class people from the Socialist Utopias.

Ironically, when these people flee California and New York to escape high taxes, crime, unemployment, and the cost of living, they never look themselves in the mirror and ask what the cause of the decline may have been in the state they are fleeing. (The answer would be staring them back in the mirror). They flee the results of their choices, but they retain the same attitudes that led to them. As Byron Schlomach, a researcher at Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, put it, “They are fleeing California, but don’t have any notion of why it’s expensive to live there.” Oh, well, these refugees are usually graduates of our public school system, where they don’t even learn arithmetic, much less basic economics.

But this does raise the interesting question of how welcoming other states should be to refugees from the People’s Republics – after all, they are carriers of a kind of plague, the plague of welfare statist mentality. Texans in particular should worry; their state appears to be one of the last bastions of economic freedom.

Perhaps Lyle Lovett, whose music charms me, should change the lyrics of his famous song, from “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway,” to “Damn right, you’re not from Texas, and Texas hopes you’ll stay away!”

The second article, “LAPD High,” was written by Laura Vanderkam. It reviews a type of “magnet school” of which I was hitherto unaware. Magnet schools are a moderate form of school choice: they are public schools, but can take students from different neighborhoods, have a special orientation, and require students to apply to get in. This allows the creation of widely different schools, enabling greater student interest, a point I have urged in earlier reflections (such as “Free to choose,” October 2006).

Vanderkam looks at the successes of six particular magnet schools that are affiliated with the Los Angeles Police Department. These schools (five high schools and one junior high) were set up during the tenure of Mayor Richard Riordan as a way to encourage minority students to consider law enforcement as a career. Their current enrollment is around 1,300, with student bodies at each school between 70% and 95% Hispanic.

The schools have the same academic requirements as others (same amount of math, English, and science classes). Courses are taught by regular public school teachers. But they also have active duty police officers on site, mentoring and helping students in other ways. And there is an intense focus on physical fitness, far beyond ordinary gym class, with weight lifting, mile runs, obstacle course runs, and so on.

The major success of these schools is the relatively high graduation rates. Fewer than half of ninth graders in regular LA public schools graduate from high school. Only 16% of Latino students graduate with the courses that qualify them to enter the California university system. But at the LAPD magnet schools, the graduation rate is 70%-90%, and most of the students who do leave transfer elsewhere rather than drop out of school entirely. Indeed, in one school (Reseda High), 100% of the 2008 graduating class either went to college or joined the military.

This touches on a point I have long urged. While it is important to focus on the role that school choice plays in improving academic performance – that is, intellectual virtue – we shouldn’t neglect the usefulness of school choice in other areas, such as increasing student retention and the improvement of moral virtue.

City Journal is an outstanding source of insightful and provocative writing. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look.

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