The Ferguson Commission: A Bridge to Nowhere
As first appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The Roman philosopher Cicero once said, “Advice is judged by results, not by intentions.” It is hard not to think of these words when reading the final report of the Ferguson Commission.
The signature priorities, “justice for all,” “youth at the center,” and providing individuals the “opportunity to thrive,” could not be more noble. Unfortunately, we cannot judge the Ferguson Commission’s report on good intentions alone. We must examine the probable results. It is certainly too early to understand all of the long-term implications of the policies that the report advocates; however, based on the evidence, the prospects are bleak.
For example, the commissioners call for an end to poverty. Who can argue with that? But to eliminate poverty, they urge the adoption of a $15 an hour minimum wage. The commissioners admit that “debate exists over the short- and long-term economic implications of raising the minimum wage.” Yet they ignore this debate and selectively cite a report in support of the higher wage. This may be to the detriment of the people the commission is attempting to help. As Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “The minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying that employers must discriminate against people who have low skills.” The people most in need of entry-level jobs will suffer the most.
The commissioners outlined a plan to “enhance college access and affordability,” but gave short shrift to the greatest impediment standing in the way of a college education for disadvantaged students—subpar academics. The average ACT score for the Normandy school district was a paltry 16; not even high enough to gain admittance to most four-year state institutions. Less than seven percent of students scored above the national average. It isn't funding that is keeping these kids from going to college; it is their abysmal K-12 preparation.
The report, which is ostensibly about improving the outcomes for low-income African-American students (who make up more than 80 percent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District and more than 96 percent of students in Normandy), includes a plank granting access to state scholarships to undocumented students brought to the United States as young children. We can debate the wisdom of that policy another day, but what on earth does it have to do with improving outcomes in North Saint Louis County?
The commission did offer some helpful suggestions for making the inter-district transfer program sustainable, but they stopped short of calling for greater freedom of choice for the parents of children trapped in underperforming schools. Rather than confronting the issue, the commissioners punted and simply called for the creation of an “education design and financing task force.”
In the end, the K-12 education proposals amount to a call for more of the same. The state needs to “invest” in a universal pre-K program and move the compulsory education age down to 5 from 7. Note, not, “create a pre-K system that doesn’t suffer from the same problems of the current one,” but simply append another grade onto K-12 schools that are not meeting the needs of low-income and African-American students.
This is not to say that the commission report was altogether wrong. Indeed, the commissioners offered many suggestions that were on point and, if enacted, could lead to improvements in the Saint Louis community. But unfortunately, when the commission veered away from policies focused on the issues at hand toward tired planks of political opportunists—like increasing the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, creating a universal pre-K program, and getting scholarships for undocumented kids—it lost sight of the problems it was set up to solve.