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Jewish World Review June 14, 2001 / 24 Sivan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The politics of Procrustes -- YOU remember that giant from Mythology for Dummies, don't you? The big Greek who carried around a one-size-fits-all bed. If your legs were too long to fit it, ol' Procrustes just chopped them off. If they were too short, he stretched them till they did.

If you think that's just mythology instead of current events, just look around at American politics, law, economics, education. ... Consider the latest twist in the Little Rock school desegregation case. Yes, it's still around. It's the lawsuit that refuses to die.

Keeping it alive, even if he has to use artificial resuscitation, is John (Procrustes) Walker, Esq. He's just filed his latest complaint against the public schools on behalf of his plaintiffs. Counselor Walker is unhappy because Baker Elementary School is getting a private gift of $300,000 to build a gym and activities center.

Huh? Shouldn't we all be happy for these kids? Particularly because the donation comes right after a needed school millage just failed. To quote the principal at Baker Elementary, "I couldn't be more thrilled that we have parents who are still willing to go the extra mile to support the school ... .''

But that's just what makes J. Procrustes Walker unhappy. He argues that what helps one school, at least if it is a largely white school, means all the other schools in Pulaski County, Arkansas, aren't as equal. This kind of gift, he says, "will tend to establish Baker as a school for the children of the well-to-do, mostly white patrons of that area.'' That won't do, not at all.

Never mind that Baker Elementary has some black students (16 percent of its enrollment) and hopes to attract more, thanks in part to this attractive new addition. It's already open to black kids who can transfer there from Little Rock under the desegregation program. To attract transfers, the school features courses in economics -- and offers childcare till 6 in the evening.

Is this school (and the families who send their kids there) to be punished because its efforts haven't attracted enough black kids? Should it be denied this addition, which might attract more students, out of spite? Should we deprive these kids, black and white, because other kids might not have as nice a gym?

The law, as Dickens noted, can be an ass -- but not on this occasion. Her Honor Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who's been overseeing this case since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, isn't playing Procrustes' game. Judge Wright not only allowed Baker Elementary to accept this gift, but expressed the hope that it would inspire other parents to do the same for their schools.

If the court had played procrustean politics, the message to supporters of the public schools would have been clear: You can't use your own money to improve your children's education -- unless of course you send them to private schools. The law was supposed to do away with separate but unequal schools, but too often it has only created another separate but unequal, resegregated school system: public and private.

You can see a similar rage for a blind equality at work in the regular revisions of Arkansas' arcane formula for distributing state aid to public schools. This state has a constitutional (and moral) obligation to give all its children a decent education. But for some, it's not enough that all schools meet a minimum standard. Some schools must also be limited -- so they can't offer their students a nice gym and music and art studios.

According to this destructive theory, all schools must be laid out on a procrustean bed and made to fit. It's not enough to help the poor; the rich must be held back.

This isn't democracy; it's a procrustean egalitarianism. And one suspects it's driven less by a desire for justice than by plain old envy. You can see the same dog-in-the-manger instinct at work in politics across the board:

It's not enough that we are given a fair chance in life; others must be held back.

It's not enough that the disadvantaged are helped; the advantaged must be punished.

It's not enough that poor students be given the extra help they need; the gifted and talented should be denied special music and art studios.

The result is to leave people embittered and less willing to help their public institutions, including their neighborhood schools.

Given a choice between equal misery and unequal progress, our modern Procrusteans will always file a brief for misery.

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