My progressive friends assure me that they are looking out for children, minorities, and especially minority children. The problem with this conceit is that when it comes to closing the achievement gap between Latino and white children on the one hand, and black and white children on the other, the only progressive cities are conservative.

The use of the term “progressive” has returned with a vengeance over the last few decades for those who locate themselves on the left side of the spectrum. “Liberal” is now considered a dirty word not just for people on the right, but those on the left as well. This should not be surprising, given that those on the ascendant left now have very little value for liberty in the arenas of public speech, economics, and a host of other issues. Many on the environmental left now speak openly about banning the automobile, among other things.

No, progress is the name of the game. For things to get better, they tell us, everything has to change in a more, well, progressive direction. The difficulty is that progressive institutions and people do not have a startlingly good record for acting on any of the rules they propose for others. Like his now Megxited daughter-in-law, the former Duchess of Wokeness, uber-environmentalist Prince Charles talks a great deal about the crisis of carbon emissions, but cannot be convinced to give up his own carbon-rich lifestyle. He traveled over 16,000 miles on private jets this past month in order to listen to Greta Thunberg lecture the other grandees at Davos (whose private jets also sat nearby) on how The End is Near if You Do Not Reduce Carbon Emissions. Do not fear for poor Prince Charlie’s conscience, however. It is clear as a Swiss mountain stream. He drove from his private jet in an electric car.

The difficulty with modern progressivism is not, however, that its rich and powerful adherents are grotesque clowns. Original sin guarantees the grotesque and the clownesque are spread in large doses all over the human race. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,” I sang as a child. So too are they ridiculous in our sight. The real problem with progressives is that even when they are ostensibly aiming at something good, their actual policies often lead to exactly the opposite. Think of California’s AB-5, which was touted as a way to get people better work conditions, but which has instead resulted in people very happy with freelance work losing their flexible and often lucrative freelancing jobs.[1]

Think too of the progressive presidential candidates whose stated views of climate change match young Miss Thunberg’s. Yet, despite the fact that the fracking boom has been responsible for the United States’s recent long-term decrease in carbon emissions since 2007, because natural gas emits less co2, Senators Sanders and Warren have pledged, if elected, to ban fracking—and the former has just introduced a bill that would do that.[2] I think we know what would happen if such a bill or presidential executive order were to be enacted. Hint: it would not be a low-carbon environmental diet.

Despite such misfires, my progressive friends assure me that they are looking out for the workers and the environment. Most of all, however, they assure me that they are looking out for children, minorities, and especially minority children. One popular progressive bumper sticker I’ve seen often over the years reads, “I’m Voting for Kids!” The problem with this conceit, as a recent report from the progressive educational outlet Brightbeam admits, is that when it comes to closing the achievement gap between Latino and white children on the one hand, and black and white children on the other, the only progressive cities are conservative.

“The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunity For All” is written by Brightbeam’s CEO, Chris Stewart.[3] Mr. Stewart’s report is based on research by political scientists Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw that identified the twelve most conservative and twelve most progressive cities in the U.S. Brightbeam pulled educational achievement data and graduation rates from public schools in each of the cities and analyzed them. The results for progressives provoked no “Mission Accomplished” banners. On average, the gaps between whites and blacks or Latinos in math and reading scores are 15 and 13 percentage points higher in the progressive twelve versus those in the conservative.

Such averages do not give you the full effect, however. San Francisco, perhaps the country’s most monolithically progressive city (last Republican mayor: 1964), has a 58-point gap between white students’ proficiency in math (70%) and that of black students (12%). Washington, DC, (last Republican mayor: 1910) has a 60-point gap between white students’ reading proficiency (83%) and that of blacks (23%). The progressive city that is closest to bridging the achievement gaps is Detroit (last Republican mayor: 1962), whose “better” results are largely due to whites doing much more poorly rather than blacks or Latinos doing well.

Not only that, but Virginia Beach, Anaheim (California), and Fort Worth have effectively closed the gap in at least one category—meaning that the differences are less than one percent. Progressive mission partially accomplished!

The report’s honesty is laudatory. One section admits in its title that “We Tried to Explain it Away, But We Couldn’t.” Trying to control for population size (New York and Chicago are much bigger than those conservative cities), the percentage of white students in a city, per-pupil spending, income inequality, and poverty, Brightbeam’s researchers could not erase the correlation between conservative cities’ good results and progressive cities’ bad ones.

Mr. Stewart’s report does not even attempt an explanation as to why progressive cities do so poorly in comparison. The result is that the report’s recommendations could have been created using a random cliché generator: “Call the city together to understand the issues”; “Demand a plan”; “Make your voice heard in the halls of power”; and so on. Though they’ve accepted the disease report, it might take something more to swallow the red pill. The concluding hope is that “communities and their leaders will see this report as a call to action—an opportunity to lean into their progressive values and work collectively toward an educational system that truly meets the high ideals of opportunity and social responsibility that progressivism represents.”

What they might consider doing instead is to lean away from what passes for progressive values so that they might achieve some of those high ideals.

Anybody who has been around public education in the United States knows that standards have been declining in general. Two retired junior high teachers from one Midwestern state told me last summer that they were glad to get out when they did because their last few years of teaching included administrative demands that a) they not demand so much from their students and b) they never give anybody a zero.

Personal existence is now worth 50% on all assignments.

Existence also suffices for behavior to be counted as good. A colleague recently told me his wife retired from her Minnesota public school this year due to administrative failures to discipline disruptive students. Such declining educational and disciplinary standards are often promoted in order to achieve the lauded progressive value of “equity,” which Mr. Stewart “assumes” has a meaning of “giving the most help to those with the greatest need (or facing the biggest obstacles), leveling the playing field, and providing opportunities for everyone to thrive, regardless of race, gender, income or social status.” What such equity has meant, especially in progressive cities including my own St. Paul, Minnesota, is something different.

In a 2017 article in City Journal, Kathy Kersten wrote of the progressive understanding of “educational equity” that had been propounded by the Obama Department of Education and advanced by local educational administrators.[4] That understanding “does not seek equal treatment for all students. Instead, it demands statistical equivalence in discipline referrals and suspensions for students of every racial group, regardless of those students’ actual conduct.”

Ms. Kersten describes the radical changes to school policy made by St. Paul’s superintendent Valeria Silva, who started her tenure in 2009 and immediately began to work on the presupposition that differences in punishment were the result of white bias on the part of teachers and white privilege on the part of students—not of actual behavioral problems. As with all modern discussions of such topics, the fact that Asian students, the largest minority in the St. Paul Public Schools, actually had the lowest rate of suspensions was somehow elided—they apparently possess “white privilege.” Ms. Silva demanded that black students, who were being suspended at fifteen times the rate of Asian students and five times that of white students, not have more than twice the rate of suspension of Asians. Further,

to close the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Silva adopted a new protocol on interactions between schools and the police. The protocol ranked student offenses on five levels and required schools to report only the worst—including arson, aggravated assault, and firearm possession—to police. School officials were strongly encouraged to handle other serious offenses—such as assault, sexual violence, and drug possession—on their own. For a time, the district administration actually tied principals’ bonuses to their track record on reducing black discipline referrals.

Not only were referrals discouraged, but teachers were encouraged not to give any severe consequences. Ms. Silva even put emotionally troubled students back in mainstream classrooms. As the violence built up in the St. Paul Schools, President Obama’s Education Department gave guidance that encouraged the same sort of policies in schools nationwide in 2014, just as research was appearing that debunked the idea that racial disparities in discipline are a result of bias.

What accounts for racial achievement and discipline gaps? Ms. Kersten points to the issue of family structure. In St. Paul, 87% of black births are out of wedlock compared to 30% of white births. She rightly concludes that the problem “is not so much a school-to-prison pipeline as a home-to-prison pipeline.”

It’s not surprising that Mr. Stewart and the good folks at Brightbeam did not examine the policies of differential discipline treatments—after all, to challenge ideas about white privilege or subconscious bias on the left today is to open oneself to the accusation of promoting “white supremacy,” even if one is black as Mr. Stewart is. It’s also not surprising that they did not try to use data on out-of-wedlock births in progressive cities to exculpate the education system. Though the evidence that children with married biological parents do vastly better on average in educational, health, and behavioral terms that, as Mary Eberstadt often jokes, even some social scientists now believe it, the truth is that it too is a kind of third-rail for progressives. Mr. Stewart’s examples of past progressive fights for equity include the battle to change the nature of marriage so that two men or two women can be recognized but they do not include anything about encouraging marriage.

In the end, progressive ideals are going to be out of reach without certain conservative values including equal expectations for behavior and achievement from students of all races and backgrounds—not statistical parity in terms of grades or disciplinary measures. Progressives have promoted the soft bigotry of low expectations for too long. Most importantly, however, progressive ideals will be out of reach if they are not promoted first and most importantly by moms and dads married to each other.

Progress can only be made by facing up to reality and keeping that fixed point in mind. To be a good progressive you must be a conservative.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] See my “We’re From the Government—and We’re Here to Help the Workers!

[2] For a report from the U. S. Energy Information Administration, see here. On Senator Sanders’ new bill, see here.

[3] Brightbeam, The Secret Shame (Brightbeam, 2020).

[4] Katherine Kersten, “No Thug Left Behind,” City Journal (Winter 2017).

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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