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October 4 2016

The Lessons of Dunbar School

Charlotte Hays

 

Dunbar was a a famous black public high school in Washington, D.C.

It is not condoning segregation to take a look at why Dunbar, established as Dunbar in 1916, was such a huge success. There were also some appalling aspects of Dunbar's history, but it is one of the most famous and beloved public schools in U.S. history.

As Thomas Sowell writes today in a history of Dunbar's hundred years, the school existed before 1916 under other names. It was always outstanding:

In 1899, when it was called "the M Street School," a test was given in Washington's four academic public high schools, three white and one black. The black high school scored higher than two of the three white high schools. Today, it would be considered Utopian even to set that as a goal, much less expect to see it happen.

The M Street School had neither of two so-called "prerequisites" for quality education. There was no "diversity." It was an all-black school from its beginning, and on through its life as a high quality institution under the name Dunbar High School.

Dunbar was overcrowded but that wasn't a hindrance to excellence. The first M Street graduate to go to Harvard went in 1903. Between the 1894 and early 1954,  thirty-four grads went to Amherst. More than a fourth of these made Phi Beta Kappa. The first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from an American institution was a Dunbar graduate, as were the first black general and the first black Cabinet member. (There are a number of famous graduates.)

Dunbar's history as an illustrious institution ended in the 1950s, when this once-great school became, in Sowell's words, "just another failing ghetto school." What happened:

For Washington, the end of racial segregation led to a political compromise, in which all schools became neighborhood schools. Dunbar, which had been accepting outstanding black students from anywhere in the city, could now accept only students from the rough ghetto neighborhood in which it was located.

Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired. More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.

Nobody, black or white, mounted any serious opposition. "Integration" was the cry of the moment, and it drowned out everything else. That is what happens in politics.

Today, there is a new Dunbar High School building, costing more than $100 million. But its graduates go on to college at only about half the rate of Dunbar graduates in earlier and poorer times. Politics can deliver costly "favors," even when it cannot deliver quality education.

The moral here is not that segregation was okay. Of course, it wasn't.

The moral is that politicians do a lousy job when it comes to running schools.

Dunbar should have been able to continue drawing students from all over town. It probably would have become truly racially-integrated and retained its status as a topnotch school.

In a way, though no one would have used the term then, Dunbar was a forerunner to our magnet or charter schools. And you know how politically-charged is the issue of school choice. It was a shame to ruin Dunbar, and it is a shame to deprive families of school choice today. Dunbar should  be a lesson.  



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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