Havre de Grace. -- For a long time, standing out in the cold, I've been wondering how to gain admission to the exclusive society of American minorities. Clearly, that's the place to be.
Everyone who's managed to get inside seems to be having a wonderful time. As seen from the outside, through the thick glass of the windows, an air of opulence and aristocracy, perhaps even of elitism, prevails. It is like a scene at an 18th Century French court, a world beyond the aspirations of les citoyens ordinaires.
Obviously there is no shortage of money within the walls, and politicians in servants' livery compete to meet the real and imagined needs of all the guests. But it isn't a party where one just walks in. There are guards at the gates, and they don't admit just anybody.
I don't mind saying it hasn't been easy coming up with a ticket -- but this is America, and here there's always a way. It just took a while to find it.
I'm not gay. I don't practice any particular religion, let alone an exotic one. I'm not a person of color, unless you count the back of my neck, which in summer gets sort of reddish, or my hands, which have acquired a multicultural look from grease, rust, and other substances common around farms.
My prospects for admission, oddly, weren't helped because I have personally experienced insensitive treatment. I've often felt like a minority, even before I qualified as one, especially after receiving some of the abusive mail that occasionally comes this way. (I would have thought the receipt of a hateful communication would have given me automatic minority status, but apparently not, except on certain college campuses.)
And although I'm male, which is the minority gender, it's not a qualified minority. Minorities don't count as such until they've been certified.
But now, certification is at hand, thanks to the Atlantic Monthly. In the July issue of that venerable organ of approved thought, a Massachusetts state legislator identifies as "the newest minority" residents of households with kids in school. All right!
So stamp our cards and lower the drawbridge to the big diversity fun house, we parents are coming aboard. Give us our name tags and watch us mingle. Howdy there, ACT-UP! Hola, La Raza! Pleeztameetcha, members of the Native American community! A high five to you, African-American brothers and sisters! We're your new neighbors, the folks from PSYCh -- parents of school-age and younger children. Nice place you got here. Somebody wanna show us around?
The author of the Atlantic piece, Michael Barrett, notes that in 1990 only 34.6 percent of American households had children under 18, a sharp drop from 1950, when the figure was 46.3 percent. (Why 34.6 percent is a minority, but 46.3 percent isn't, Mr. Barrett doesn't explain, but who wants to quibble?)
The point of the article, although it isn't made very persuasively, is that the lower the percentage of families with children in a community, the weaker becomes local support for the taxes that pay for schools.
Mr. Barrett, a state legislator, has a good Massachusetts-type solution to that problem. He'd like the federal government to spend a bunch more billions on public education.
A lot of Maryland people think that's a good idea too, figuring that the more you spend on schools, the better the job you must be doing on education.
They'd like to get us PSYChs, members of the newest certified minority, to press for more school spending -- local, state, federal, or whatever.
Massachusetts and Maryland currently rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in average per-pupil expenditures. The trouble is, they ranked 33rd and 32nd respectively in their students' 1992 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Could it be that more money won't really help?
New Jersey spends far more on education, per pupil, than any other state -- $9,159 in 1992 as opposed to Maryland's $6,184. It ranked 39th in the SAT test averages. New York spent $8,500, and ranked 42nd. The District of Columbia spent $8,210 per pupil, more than any state except New York and New Jersey, and ranked 49th in SAT scores. By contrast, Iowa ranked 30th in spending ($4,839 per pupil) and first in SAT scores. Utah ranked last in spending ($2,993) and fourth in SAT scores.
This suggests that what America's PSYChs should be doing, instead of asking for government to spend more of their own and their neighbors' dollars on education, is working for schools that get better results for less money. Iowa and Utah look like models worth considering.
The trouble is, saying such a thing in polite company is like snoring in church. It can cause no end of embarrassment, or worse. To gain admittance at last to the minorities' party and then start campaigning for smaller subsidies and greater governmental efficiency might be considered a gross breach of etiquette.
It's nice being insiders at last, but there's a real risk our hosts will call the bouncers. If they do, we PSYChs will find ourselves out on the pavement once again, futilely waving our copies of the July Atlantic Monthly as the party goes on without us.
Peter Jay's column appears here each week.