Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag, a longtime education writer and editor, is the co-author of When Europe Was a Prison Camp: Father and Son Memoirs, 1940-41 (Indiana University Press, 2015) and author of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, and California: America's High-Stakes Experiment. He is a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Recent Articles

Muddy Waters

New data show just how successful affirmative action programs have been at elite colleges and universities. Too bad those data might not have much relevance for the current debate over preferences in higher education. 

I f anything is certain about The Shape of the River —William G. Bowen's and Derek Bok's massive defense of race preferences in university admissions—it is this: the book will become a primary source in every debate and lawsuit involving affirmative action for the next decade, and maybe longer. It's a book that will launch a thousand footnotes. And that was clearly part of the authors' intention. They remind us that in 1978, when Justice Lewis Powell wrote the Supreme Court's opinion in the seminal Bakke v. Regents of the University of California case, he was willing to take on faith the word of university officials that diversity, including ethnic diversity, was an important asset in the education of university students. But this is a different age, with a different Court. Race preferences have already been prohibited in three parts of the country: by nearly identical voter initiatives in California and Washington State, and by a federal appellate court in Texas, Lou isiana, and Ark...

When Preferences Disappear

Proposition 209 signals the end of gender and racial favoritism in California, but it may also be the beginning of affirmative action by other means.

B y now, there can no longer be much doubt that the days of formal race preference programs, at least in the public sector, are numbered. On November 5, California voters did what everyone had long expected, approving Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, which prohibits any consideration of race or gender in California public education, employment, and contracting. The vote was narrower than had once been expected (and might have been narrower still had CCRI opponents not used an inflammatory and offensive television commercial, complete with a burning KKK cross, in the last weeks of the campaign). But, with a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, it was decisive enough. CCRI is only the most recent assault on affirmative action measures. And while Proposition 209 still faces legal challenges in federal court that may take years to resolve fully, the drift is clear. In the summer of 1995, the regents of the University of California, under heavy pressure from a...

The Burden of Western History

There have been revisionist histories of America and the American West at least since the middle of the sixteenth century, when the priest-historian Bartolomé de las Casas accused his fellow Spaniards of the mass murder, essentially the genocide, of millions of Native Americans. In 1879, even as Manifest Destiny and the dream of the open West dominated popular mythology, Henry George warned of the monopolization of western land and concentration of ownership in what Huck Finn was shortly to call "the territory." In 1950 the great literary historian Henry Nash Smith identified the central contradiction in the American agrarian tradition and the romance of the American West: If nature and the frontier were perfection, what became of civilization and progress? "A system which revolved about a half-mystical conception of nature and held up as an ideal a rudimentary type of agriculture," he wrote, "was powerless to confront issues...

Smells Like School Spirit

"N o other people," wrote Henry Steele Commager, the most widely read American historian of the generation following World War II, "ever demanded so much of schools and of education as have the American. None other was ever so well served by its schools and its educators." A lot of us, bombarded by the educational controversies and the ongoing schools-are-failing rhetoric of the past two decades, may now find Commager's words a little quaint--even preposterous--either because he was writing about some long-gone golden age or because he got carried away by his own celebratory fervor. The four-part PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education, which will air September 3 and 4, is an ambitious attempt to show Americans how accurate Commager's assessment was and still is. No institution--certainly no cultural institution--is more pervasive, more deeply embedded in the history and hopes of our democracy, or more central to our debates about that democracy than public...

The Great School Sell-Off

Vouchers would auction off our future.

L ong before Bill Clinton appeared on the presidential horizon, he had, as governor of Arkansas, established himself as one of a half-dozen national leaders in the public school reform movement of the 1980s. The movement was determinedly bipartisan, pragmatic, and nonideological. In addition to Clinton, it included Republican governors Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as independent Califormnia State School Superintendent Bill Honig. These reformers sought, and generally achieved, tougher graduation requirements; more rigorous curricula and textbooks; competency tests for both students and teachers; merit pay or other incentives for outstanding teachers; longer school days and school years; and better funding for K-12 schools almost everywhere. But before the decade was over, a combination of recession, budget cuts, impatience, and political expediency helped start a deep and very ideological current running in the opposite direction-- a retreat from...

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