Monday, January 16, 2012

Thursday's Child

Here in Palo Alto we have a school program called Tinsley, under which about five hundred kids from East Palo Alto, which is a mile away and is predominantly Hispanic, are brought into Palo Alto schools, which are mostly white and Asian. This isn’t something our community did voluntarily; it was forced on us twenty-five years ago by a Brown v. Board type lawsuit. So, while many applaud the program, others resent it, believing it diverts resources from Palo Alto kids and doesn’t do the kids from East Palo Alto much good.
A Stanford graduate student studying that last point—how much the East Palo Alto students are benefited---recently reported significant gains in science and history and small gains in math and English. She also noted important up-ticks in student self-confidence. Tinsley kids “felt comfortable talking to anybody, of any social class. They felt they could operate in a broader social world even if that process is sometimes hard.”

When the Stanford study was reported by a local online news site, an intense community discussion followed. Passions, it seems, have not cooled.

“Busing,” as Tinsley type solutions used to be called, is a difficult and divisive issue. There are good arguments on both sides, but these facts remain:

1.     The nation’s schools have re-segregated to pre Brown v. Board levels.
2.     The education opportunity in schools with predominantly minority populations is generally inferior to those in white schools.
3.     Income inequality is growing. It is now much greater than during the Civil Rights movement, greater than any time since the 1920s.
4.     Income inequality makes upward mobility harder.

Palo Alto is not all rich folks, but we are very well off. Many here made their places by their own hard work and enterprise. That personal success, and the struggle for it, can make us think that if we can do it anyone should be able to. Economists tell us this is not true. Being born poor is a substantial impediment to upward mobility.

Maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe those of us who are lucky (or have made our own luck) owe nothing to those who are not. I don’t think that is the way we feel toward one another, however. Times are a little tougher now, so perhaps we are a bit hunkered down, looking primarily after ourselves, and that is understandable. Our future, though, as a country, depends upon our children. Not just the ones born to us, or adopted by us, but those all around us. We cannot prosper if we do not educate them and give them real (not imagined) opportunity to become important parts of the economic fabric of our society.

Even if you doubt Tinsley works as well as the Stanford researcher reports, it’s hard to see how, in a community as rich as ours, with the resources to make significant private contributions to our public schools, our children are suffering because of support for the Tinsley program.

And then there are these questions: If not here, where? If not us, who? I don’t see how we can just turn away from the reality that poor kids need help.

Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is a fair thing to wish for, and a test we should all hope to pass.


  1. Your acts of generosity I'm sure are appreciated.
    I think it means more coming from a kind face than a faceless bureaucracy.

  2. Hard to imagine Palo Alto kids are harmed by sharing schools with East Palo Alto kids. Surely they gain from this experience, too.

  3. To claim that charity can replace necessary government assistance is a joke. According to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, total charitable giving for human services in 2010 was $26.49 billion dollars. The 2010 annual budget for Medicare alone was $453 billion. This does not include other human services programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Head Start. The government, and only the government, has the resources to provide the social safety net that even a minimal level of human decency requires.

  4. Tough times for kids in poor schools.