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The Disappearing Family Problem

Broken homes could use a little more attention from Washington.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By MITCH PEARLSTEIN
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Paternalistic schools, Whitman emphasizes, “can value freedom, curiosity, and self-expression” as thoroughly as other schools, while also “inculcating diligence, thrift, politeness, and a strong work ethic.” As for how kids do academically, in the three inner-city high schools he writes about, 85 percent of graduates go on to college, while boys and girls in the three inner-city middle schools typically score in the 80th percentile or better on nationally normed tests.

There is, of course, plenty here for adults involved in elementary and secondary education to dislike. The very mention of “charter, parochial, and public boarding schools” is a red flag to many, even before you get to a pedagogical spirit that is poles apart from the progressive ethos of much of education. But, son of a gun, many children from single-parent homes seem to do unusually well in these schools, in Whitman’s account.

In a similar vein, the late economist and Minnesota legislator John Brandl argued that religiously affiliated schools “provide some disadvantaged children with a substitute for the care they are not receiving from family and neighborhood—something possible but very rare in public schools.” Teachers, of course, need not work in religious schools in order to view their profession as a ministry, but it is only teachers in religious schools who are free to invoke in the classroom what they see as their and their students’ obligation to God. Neither sound arguments from economists nor well-established research findings that disadvantaged children, especially African-American girls and boys, tend to do better in private and religious schools will avail for more than small numbers of such students, of course, unless some form of public support—vouchers, tax credits, or “scholarships”—is made available, and these are anathema to liberal orthodoxy. One would like to believe that a lame-duck liberal White House, with less to fear from the big teachers’ unions, would feel free to think anew. It is unlikely. More realistic may be the possibility that President Obama, in discussing the education of children in broken homes, might return to the kind of morally rich and compelling rhetoric he used over four years ago in speaking about fathers. If he did— and especially if he were also willing to speak plainly about the benefits of marriage—even that modest step would be worth applauding. 

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment and the author of From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. 

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