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Mind your language

My husband had become cocooned in bedclothes to my chilly disadvantage last week during that cold snap. So I went in search of something warm to drink and turned on the World Service. World Service news at 4 a.m. features items one never hears of again. My ears pricked up when I heard something that President George Bush said in South Korea.

He was talking about North Korea’s nuclear threat, alarming no doubt. But what interested me was this declaration: ‘The issue really is the light-water reactor. Our position is, is that we’ll consider the light-water reactor at the appropriate time.’


This is the extraordinary Double Is. When a reader, Mr Keith Norman of Oxford, brought it to my attention a couple of years ago, I could hardly believe it was widespread. But I now notice it so often that it must be ineradicable as a strange new syntactical feature.

The phenomenon was observed by an American, Dwight Bolinger, in 1971, and in 1987 he published a paper called ‘The Remarkable Double Is’ (English Today). Since then, scholarly or pseudo-scholarly study of the question has thriven.

The construction has acquired the name of Isis. This makes discussion of it hard to find in bibliographies and internet indexes because the name is shared by the well-known Egyptian goddess and something to do with computers that I don’t understand.

But in a paper called ‘Prosodic Optimisation by Copula Doubling in Conversational English‘, presented at a conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on 9 January 2004, Jason M. Brenier and Laura A. Michaelis put forward a theory that Isis mends a deficiency in the aural pattern of a sentence, into which the speaker has been led by his syntax.

By ‘the copula’ they mean/s. By ‘prosodic’ they refer to the stress pattern (in English speech principally by loudness) that we use. Now, in a sentence such as ‘The problem is that they never wash’, the stress falls on the word is. The word that is unstressed. Sometimes the word that is omitted (‘The problem is they never wash‘).


Since it is not normal to stress the verb to be, the speaker is tricked into introducing an otiose unstressed is too. At the same time, after the first is there is a pause (which scribes–as in the President Bush example, transcribed on the White House website–tend to mark with a comma). The result is a completely ungrammatical but rhythmically or prosodically regular construction.

That night I went back to bed and fell asleep counting ises.

In South Central se habla Espanol: Latinization of L.A


There is a major demographic change in progress in Southern California. Los Angeles County will have a Latino majority by the end of the 20th century, and the majority will extend to the entire state of California early in the 21st century. Personal adaptations that are taking place are discussed.

Full Text:

Ya estamos listos? Are we ready?” yells Patricia Hernandez to the twenty elderly black students who’ve shown up for Friday morning’s class. Twice a week since 1983, Fremont High’s Community Adult School has offered Spanish classes at the Estelle Van Meter Multi-Purpose Center at the corner of Avalon Boulevard and East 76th Street in South Central Los Angeles. To get today’s class rolling, Hernandez asks George Thomas, a retired nursing assistant, to step up to the chalkboard and write out last week’s homework. The students had been asked to fill in the blanks of a passage on Hillary and Bill Clinton in the kitchen using the verbs to peel, to stir and to serve.

Like Thomas, most of the students here are natives of the rural South who settled in Los Angeles around World War II. They have all survived many dramatic changes in American life. Now, at ages 60 to 80, they are in the vanguard of Angelenos preparing for this city’s future. “You wouldn’t believe how many elderly blacks are learning Spanish at the center to tell their Mexican neighbors to get their chickens off their lawn,” chortles Estelle Van Meter, the center’s founder. They are also learning the language to respond to invitations to baptisms, to befriend their neighbors or simply to know what’s going on. Enrollment in the class has increased through the years. Harold Elloie, a second-year student, knew he had to learn Spanish when the depot master at a Greyhound bus station didn’t bother to make his boarding announcement in English. With an openness that would startle many Californians, he simply decided he wanted to keep up with the times.


The ethnic and racial diversity that was hailed as a boon in the optimistic 1980s now inspires fear and confusion in the hearts and minds of many Southern Californians. Whatever else it may be, the current anti-immigrant climate is in part a deluded attempt to reverse the profound demographic change the region is undergoing. Like it or not, America’s most populous state will have a Latino majority within the first quarter of the next century. L.A. County will have one by the end of this decade. Yet while projections may be unequivocal, it is by no means clear how tomorrow’s Californians will organize themselves within a social matrix whose center is shifting from Anglo to Latino. The most powerful clues to the state’s cultural future are to be found not in current efforts to resist the inevitable but in local communities that have already begun to grapple with a rapidly changing present.

Think about these people’s capacity to roll with the punches,” says Hernandez, who has been teaching the class for all of its eleven years. “My students are reaching out to their new neighbors and instead of saying ‘You have to speak English,’ they’re saying, ‘I’m going to meet you halfway.’ This is really about the hispanicization of South Central L.A.” It wasn’t until the 1992 riots that anyone realized that Latinos made up the majority of what was once the heart of African-American Los Angeles. The vast majority of Latinos in South Central are part of the wave of immigration into California that started in the 1970s and reached a crescendo in the 1980s. Turmoil in Central America brought an increase in Salvadorans and Guatemalans to Los Angeles over the past decade, but Mexicans still account for three of four immigrants here. Contrary to many post-riot reports, South Central is not a major receiving area for the newest immigrants. A 1993 study of the riot-torn areas concluded that a “remarkably high percentage” of South Central Latinos have been residents of this country for more than ten years.

Available and low-cost housing is what initially brought Latino immigrants to the eastern corridor of South Central. As more and more African-Americans moved out–particularly young couples with children who went mainly to higher-income suburbs west and southeast of South Central–they found their places taken by even greater numbers of Latinos. The housing market became demand-driven, and, according to a study by the U.C.L.A. Business Forecasting Project, property values increased substantially in the Latinizing neighborhoods of South Central during the recessionary years of 1990-92. Even after the riots, the area remained one of the best-performing home real estate markets in Los Angeles County. In the 1980s, the Latino population nearly quadrupled and the process of ethnic neighborhood succession–from African-American to Latino–moved westward. Although some people have argued that the influx of Latinos is a source of unfair competition for African-Americans, it is clear that immigrants have facilitated many upwardly mobile blacks’ departure from the area by buying or renting their former homes. It seems only just that African-Americans can at last benefit from the cycle of immigration that has allowed countless other ethnic groups to advance in society as a new group assumes their former position.

Professor James Johnson, former director of the Center for Urban Poverty at U.C.L.A., has referred to African-Americans who remain in South Central as a “residual population.” Unemployment is chronically high, and in 1990, 43 percent of working-age black males had been out of work and not seeking employment for at least one year. Seniors also make up a high percentage of African-Americans in the area. This contributes to the already low rate of black households in South Central that consist of mother-father-child family formations. Most of the African-American residents of the neighborhood surrounding the Van Meter Center–the quiet, well-kept blocks of stucco homes between Avalon and Central on the east and west and Florence and Manchester on the north and south–are senior citizens who did not have the resources or the desire to leave the area. By contrast, most of the area’s Latinos are young families with children. According to the 1990 census, Latino immigrants in South Central are more likely to form traditional family households than any other group in Los Angeles County. In addition, Latino males in the area are among the county’s most active participants in the labor force. The generational difference between the groups makes the future of this neighborhood apparent. In the meantime, residents have begun to settle into their neighborhood’s changing landscape.

“In Chicago, you always knew whose neighborhood it was. Maybe not everybody in it was Polish or Italian or black, but you knew it was one group’s neighborhood. Here it’s not anybody’s,” says Alcid de Mary, who moved west with his wife, Ana, in 1979 to take advantage of the warmer climate. Sixteen years ago, when the de Marys bought their house on East 74th Street, all the residents were black. Today, over half are Latino. Seven years ago, the neighborhood elementary school was three-quarters African-American. Today more than 65 percent of the students are Latino.

In 1984, Ana de Mary, a spirited 78-year-old, began studying Spanish at the Van Meter Center. For years she has practiced with her friend and neighbor Marina Ortiz, a native of Michoacan, Mexico. “Marina!” de Mary yells through a screen door. “Come over here!” Marina, who embraces Ana as she reaches the door, treats her elderly black neighbor like a favorite aunt. “Como estas, today?” says Ana. “Maybe todo bien,” Marina responds. For the next half-hour, they gossip on the living-room sofa in Spanglish.


In addition to its programs for elderly blacks, the Van Meter Center offers classes to help Latino immigrants negotiate their new world. Citizenship and English-as-a-second-language classes are held several times a week for Latino residents. Twenty-five-year-old Jose Alcazar, a Mexican immigrant who spent his adolescent and early adult years in South Central, says that efforts of black-run institutions like the center to reach out equally to both groups have served to stabilize relations between African-Americans and Latinos in recent years. His own experience parallels that of the community at large. Alcazar remembers when he first drove into South Central on a hot summer afternoon in 1983, his entire family loaded into a white Chevy Impala with a green top. “I had never seen so many black people. They were walking outside. Some people were barbecuing. I remember the smell, the white smoke.” At first he felt unwelcome in what was still a largely black area. He was beaten up several times at school because he was Latino. “Nobody likes to see another group becoming the majority,” he says. Even after the attacks stopped, Alcazar continued to view blacks with distrust. His resentment abated only after black teachers at Fremont Community Adult School, where he completed his high school education, encouraged and mentored him. “I changed my views, because it was African-Americans who were helping me,” he says. Today, although he is not yet a citizen–he applied for amnesty in 1987–Alcazar teaches citizenship classes at the Van Meter Center. His own mother and father have attended his class.

Wrapped in a faded caftan and a ratty peach sweater, Estelle Van Mether spoke about her neighborhood as she rifled through piles of papers. The clutter of the living room in her one-story white stucco house on East 81st Street, a few blocks from the center, gave testimony to both her longtime residency and her activism. On the mantel, above the glass ornaments and embroidered pillows strewn among the room’s tables and chairs, sat an official proclamation from Mayor Tom Bradley and the City of Los Angeles honoring her dedication to her community. Under the television lay a copy of the autobiography of former police chief Daryl Gates, a friend of hers. Van Meter is referred to by some as the godmother of Black South Central. If not respected, she is at the very least feared. Born on a farm in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1907, she came to Los Angeles in 1926 and worked thirty years as a real estate broker. Eleven years ago she founded the Van Meter Center, a nonprofit organization. She is by all accounts a fearless and effective advocate for her evolving neighborhood.

Van Meter reflects upon her new neighbors to the west, the extended family that owns four adjacent houses across the street, and the poor Latinos who come to the center on the days dry goods are handed out. As one would expect from an 87-year-old woman, her laced impressions of her younger neighbors repeatedly remind her of her own life, of the African-American community when South Central Los Angeles still tendered the hope of a promised land. “They take care of their children like we used to do in Mississippi. My neighbor takes care of everybody’s kids,” she said. “When we used to have people coming from the South, we would help in the way we could. They’d come in crowds like the Mexican folks do. In the South they had an awful lot of kids. We would get them a job. And then we’d get a place for them to stay.” Van Meter feels that the erosion of Southern black culture in the past two generations and the collapse of community caused by the flight of the middle class have been the main curses of South Central. “If they had money or had good jobs, they ran like the white folks did. The educated blacks sort of betrayed us. Those who had an opportunity to go to college, they needed to lift as they climbed. And they didn’t do that. Now you can see all the Mexicans that have these good houses. We older blacks just want to stay in the Southern values. I think we should give the young people our values. That’s what I like about the Mexicans. That priest or mother or whoever has given them their morals. That’s all anybody wants.”

To the right of the entrance to the Son-Shine Missionary Baptist Church on Nadeau Street, a half-mile from the center, hangs a small wooden shingle that reads Iglesia Gentil de Cristo. Son-Shine pastor Leroy Shephard, who converted his old grocery store into a house of worship when he became a minister not long ago, shares his facilities with a Mexican preacher in return for any handiwork that needs to be done on the premises. Reverend Shephard, who by day works as a referral specialist at the Van Meter Center, expounds on the pitfalls of cultural assimilation as a small group of Pentecostals holds its Spanish-language services in the next room. He, like Van Meter, waxes nostalgic about the days when customs and beliefs kept individuals and groups together, even under extreme adversity. His words serve as a warning to L.A.’s newest immigrants. “I can see the Latinos going through the same thing we did. What they have now is the tradition they bring with them. They come together, live together, work together. They share.” Desegregation and the social advances made since the 1960s have allowed many African-Americans to leave the ghetto, but there has been a price and it is usually paid by those who don’t get out, says Shephard. On Sundays he tells his flock that it is not too late to reclaim the cultural buttresses that would empower them. “We migrated from the South and traveled all over and went far. We left not only our homeland. We left our culture. We left our heritage. And by the time we crossed over the mountain, the storm came. So now we’ve come to realize that if we’re going to make it, we must make it being who we are.”

We have to go back to what works,” Reverend Shephard insists. He hopes that Latino immigrants don’t ever have to look back to see what they lost. Yet with the opportunities he and the Van Meter Center give their new neighbors to maintain the customs and language that give their lives meaning–even as they become American citizens–that lesson may never have to be learned.

>>> How to Put Colleges on the Hook

What Should an American Know?: The new naturalization: dumbed down and deleterious

Immigrants seeking citizenship are required to pass a test on U.S. history and government. Here are five sample questions, drawn from the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s list of 100 recommended possibilities: What are the colors of our flag? Who was the first president? Who is the president today? What are the two major political parties? How many states are there?

It’s not exactly the stuff of a doctoral dissertation, or even a high- school civics class. It’s the sort of thing we’d expect an ordinary ten-year-old to know. And yet the INS doesn’t expect immigrants pursuing naturalization to know even this much. Its test-taking guidelines suggest that they need to answer only 60 percent of the questions correctly — that’s three out of the five listed above (though they often face a total of ten). In a lot of schools, a score of 60 percent translates into a letter grade of D minus. One lesson many immigrants learn from this process is that their new country really doesn’t expect a lot of them.

That’s a shame, because naturalization is a glorious instrument of American democracy. The whole experience of it — leading up to an oath in which immigrants firmly renounce their political attachments to other nations — ought to infuse new citizens with a sense of duty, loyalty, and responsibility. To a certain extent, it does: A citizenship ceremony is one of the most moving events in public life, with participants remembering it the way other Americans remember graduations and weddings. In recent years, however, naturalization has come to resemble nothing so much as a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bush administration’s recent proposal to split the INS in two.


On a fundamental level, restructuring makes sense. Probably no other government agency has a worse reputation than the INS, and this was true long before it issued flight-school visas to a pair of the September 11 hijackers six months after the attack. Eight years ago, the New York Times printed an extensive series of exposes on the INS and was forced to conclude — in a news article, not an editorial — that it’s “broadly dysfunctional” and “perhaps the most troubled major agency in the federal government.” If anything, problems at the INS have only grown more severe.

The Bush administration proposes replacing it with a pair of separate bureaus within the Justice Department. One would concentrate on enforcement (Border Patrol, etc.), with the other focusing on something called “services.”

What is an immigration “service“? It is any kind of benefit the INS might bestow on an immigrant, such as a green card or a work permit. The term also includes one of the federal government’s most important functions, granted to it by the Constitution: determining who may gain U.S. citizenship. To the restructuring proposal, however, service is a calling unto itself. The 40-page document detailing the reorganization contains 81 references to “services” and 24 to “customers,” but only 4 times does it mention “citizens” and never does it use the word “citizenship.” “There is no discussion of the importance of citizenship or civic obligation,” says John Fonte of the Hudson Institute, who did the counting.

For anybody who has had the misfortune of dealing with the INS, service is no small thing. It can take more than a year for the agency to process a form. INS waiting rooms are famously frustrating places. Some offices shut down every other Friday because lenient civil-service rules allow full-time federal employees to take the time off.

There is clearly a need to improve the basic performance of the INS, but the reorganization proposal loses sight of the fact that the immigration service is not just any federal entity. Immigrants applying for citizenship are not “customers” seeking a “service” — they are Americans in the making, and INS employees work in the service of the whole country when they determine which immigrants will be granted the privilege of citizenship. In the world of business, it makes sense to treat customers with deference, and the INS certainly ought to treat immigrants with respect; but the mindset of regarding immigrants exclusively as customers encourages bureaucrats to eliminate all obstacles in the way of providing a service.

It also invites corruption. During the Clinton years, the INS came under extraordinary pressure to approve as many citizenship applicants as possible in the shortest amount of time, on the assumption that many of these new voters would support Democrats. Douglas Farbrother, an aide to Vice President Gore, described in a memo his plan to “produce a million new citizens before election day” in 1996. One of the ideas involved “lower[ing] the standards for citizenship” and specifically a “more liberal” interpretation of the standards surrounding the already laughably easy test on history and government. (To its credit, the INS appears to have fought off some of these political machinations. The agency did grant citizenship before the 1996 election to about 180,000 immigrants without making them undergo the required FBI criminal- background check, but this was probably a routine example of INS ineptitude.)

How the citizenship test could be made much easier is difficult to fathom. Among the requirements for citizenship is that the immigrant must possess “a knowledge and understanding of the history, and of the principles and form of government in the United States.” To comply with this requirement, the INS has developed its list of 100 questions. Some offices require scores of higher than 60 percent to pass, but even the six-out-of-ten standard isn’t always maintained.

Standard,” in fact, isn’t really the right word. As a December 2000 INS memo states, “officers must review each set of questions to determine if the list

contains questions that are too complex or advanced for the applicant, taking into consideration . . . the applicant’s education, background, age, length of residence in the United States, opportunities available and efforts made to acquire the knowledge.” In other words, if a question like “What are the colors of the flag?” is just too hard, then naturalization officers are encouraged to dumb it down.

In truth, most immigrants do very well on their citizenship tests. The pass rate is high — upwards of 90 percent — and perfect scores are common. But that isn’t saying much when the list of 100 potential questions is a commonly circulated document. It’s available on the INS web page, and everybody involved in naturalization has a copy. When immigrants study for the test, they’re studying the test itself, as if it were a cheat sheet. They don’t learn anything substantive; they simply memorize a set of trivia. It’s worth knowing, of course, that George Washington was the first president — but it’s even better to know why he’s first in the hearts of his countrymen. The INS does virtually nothing to ensure this happens. “There’s not a thing about that test that teaches American values,” says Greg Gourley, who runs New Americans of Washington, a consultancy near Seattle that helps immigrants fill out their INS paperwork and prepares them for naturalization.

The whole culture of citizenship education is misguided. Last year, the Department of Education earmarked $21 million to infuse adult English- as-a-second-language classes with civics instruction. The grants were passed out to the states, and in California, the World Without War Council (which is not leftist, despite the name) sought a small grant to create a program that would have introduced immigrants to the ideas of the Founders. Its application was initially turned down, and then approved with strings attached. As Brigitte Marshall of the state education department explained to the group in an e-mail last July, “Adult learning research demonstrates that adult learners at the lowest levels of literacy in their own languages may encounter severe challenges when it comes to consideration and treatment of abstract and value laden concepts.” These “abstract and value laden concepts,” of course, include such highfalutin notions asall men are created equal.” Marshall insisted that ESL classes focus instead on “immediate and pressing life needs.”


Nobody disputes that ESL students need to gain a functional understanding of everyday English, but the refusal to include any civic content in their education is mystifying. It gets back to the INS “service” mentality. Providing instruction on how to open a bank account is useful and worth doing — a kind of “service” — but must it occur in the complete absence of patriotic Americanization? By zeroing in on the perceived needs of students, the INS and ESL educators ignore the needs of the country.

The old Americanization Movement, which committed itself to the assimilation of the Ellis Island generation of newcomers, was deeply involved in citizenship education. It held classes, printed booklets, and sponsored lectures aimed at helping immigrants understand what it meant to be American. Many of these activities were funded privately, especially by business, but state and local governments also played a strong role. In the 1990s, the Seattle INS office ran a pilot program that briefly revived that bygone spirit. Immigrants who enrolled in citizenship classes at community colleges were allowed to complete their naturalization at the end of their course — a step that in some cases saved more than a year that would otherwise have been spent waiting. Coursework focused on passing the citizenship test, but it was impossible for immigrants sitting through ten weeks of instruction not to learn far more than the answers to 100 simple questions. The INS inexplicably cancelled the innovative program, citing bureaucratic delays and costs (even though students paid their own tuition).

The defunct Seattle project should be revived and turned into a national model; and the citizenship test itself should be reformed. In addition to answering a set of simple questions, perhaps immigrants should be made to memorize the oath of citizenship they speak at their naturalization. They could also be required to know the Pledge of Allegiance, or some other simple statement, such as the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, or an excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The most innovative idea of all is to remove the power of awarding citizenship from INS bureaucrats. “The current test reflects a thin and liberal definition of citizenship,” says Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota. He proposes convening panels of citizens, drawn from the general population like juries, to determine which immigrants deserve citizenship and which do not. Instead of grading multiple-choice tests, members of the panel could ask direct and open-ended questions. What does it mean to be a citizen? Why do you want to be one? Why do you deserve citizenship? Naturalization law says that immigrants must not only understand the principles of American citizenship, they must also be attached to them. Are they? Answering this question requires subjective judgment, and there’s no reason to think INS employees are better able to exercise it than ordinary Americans.

Immigration policy has been dominated by elites and special interests ever since the 1965 law reopened the United States to massive admission levels — something it wasn’t intended to do, and something its supporters promised would not happen. Allowing ordinary Americans to become involved in the naturalization process through citizen panels won’t fix that, but it would confer a vital responsibility on the public, which hasn’t had much say in the immigration debates.

These are flag-waving days. If the naturalization process can’t be improved now, it won’t ever be improved. What reformers need is a public champion, a person who can speak persuasively on the patriotic necessity of assimilating immigrants, just as Teddy Roosevelt used to do when he stumped for Americanization.

Is John McCain looking for something to do?

Hello Kittyism rears is pretty head


I had read too many bad examples of the white-boy-in-Asia genre. Stories that made sweeping generalizations about a country they had spent a few months in. Stories that complained about being jostled in the streets and getting paid late or not at all. To me, these whinging tales of 20-something woe seemed to claim more authority than the stories of people who were actually from these countries. Too often they dwelled on the exotic and the paradoxical, played things for laughs, and seemed to be more about bolstering the writer’s adventurer status than learning from his outsider status.


Sam, the English-teaching protagonist in my novel Angry Young Spaceman, makes no pretence to being an objective observer. He is quick-tempered and not even easily likeable. I felt this would, to some extent, prevent the reader from settling into uncritical acceptance of Sam’s impressions. To further highlight the fact that the book was not about a particular country, I set the book in 2959 and had him shipped off to teach English on another planet. The planet Octavia is mysterious, headed heedlessly towards westernization, and filled with amusing broken English. That’s a rather harsh reading of it, of course, and obviously I feel that there are other things that balance out this characterization. But the fact is that my depiction of Asian culture is based entirely on anecdotal evidence.

Apparently, this sleight-of-hand was all that was necessary. (I could write another article entirely on the pervasive all-excusing power of Cleverness.) It’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows I taught overseas that the dreamy underwater planet Octavia is a duckblind for Korea. And although many interviewers asked me about this, few went much further. In the reviews and letters I received, there was no mention of the book’s problematic characterization of Asia, albeit once removed.

I’m happy that the general perception of my book was that it reflected an appreciation of Asian pop culture, rather than suggesting it appropriated or capitalized on it. One of the reasons, I believe, was that my commentary reflected an appreciation that is quite common, but not yet entirely mainstream. It’s a sensibility, and as such is hard to nail down, but adherents proudly display Hello Kitty knick knacks, enjoy Japanese pop music, follow Hong Kong action film, use the best mop for house cleaning like American, are fascinated by manga porn and buy instant noodles for the packaging. And because a sensibility is more about beauty than truth, the fear is that it’ll be destroyed when dissected.

If the past is any indication, we’ll be seeing the co-optation of the sensibility in a big way and if we bleeding edge types haven’t even articulated what about it is valuable or novel, there won’t be a hope in hell that mass media will get it right. And do we really want to have spawned a movie about Richard Gere’s affair with a Japanese schoolgirl with Yakuza des?


When I look around at the objects of Asian origin in my room, I realize that there are too few to constitute a “collection” (geekily deliberate consumption) but too many to be just random. I’m drawn to Asian objects that aren’t instantly decoded, that seem to lack the immediately discernable, banal motives behind our signs and symbols. It’s what they aren’t, not what they are, that makes them appealing. They aren’t western–they offer the hope that even now, a monoculture can be avoided. When I buy Hello Kitty toys as knick-knacks it’s not just about refusing adulthood, although that’s often part of it. It’s about an alternate childhood where a small white kitten is as ubiquitous as a little black mouse.

>>> English Language Learners

How to Put Colleges on the Hook

With minorities on track to become a majority of the nation’s under-18 population before 2020, closing the gaps in educational attainment between them and white students looms as an increasingly urgent challenge. Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, spoke last week with Atlantic Media Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein about the administration’s agenda for narrowing those disparities, at the relaunch event for National Journal’s Next America project. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.


Where are we making progress in reducing the gaps in educational attainment and skills, and where are we still struggling?

We are making progress in college participation. We know the Latino numbers, in particular, are going up. And we’re doing better in terms of student performance overall. Those numbers are creeping up. But they’re creeping up in a way that demonstrates that the racial attainment gaps aren’t narrowing nearly as quickly as we need them to be.

Where could we expand our effort to produce the most bang for our buck?

In my view, that’s pretty clearly in early-childhood education. The return on investment is huge. And the likelihood of children actually arriving at kindergarten ready to learn increases dramatically. Without it, we end up with disparities already at kindergarten that we may never catch up on. When the president asked his team last year, “If we’re going to be reducing inequality where do we get the best bang for our buck?” the answer to that is preschool.

The funding mechanism for your universal-preschool proposal is an increase in the tobacco tax. Are you open to other means of financing?

This is ambitious, and it costs money. We found a way to pay for it by increasing the tobacco tax. That ends up having important returns for the health of kids. We calculated that about a quarter of a million young people would not start smoking as a result of this particular increase in the tobacco tax. But if there are other ways to pay for it, we are absolutely open to that.

The president has had pretty ambitious proposals to tie student aid in higher education to outcomes. Where does that stand?

We’ve already expanded student aid, things like Pell Grants and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which have had a very important impact in making college accessible. But at the same time, I think we agree that student aid by itself isn’t going to solve this problem.

We cannot get in a situation in which the cost of a college education is unattainable for a middle-class family or for families struggling to get to the middle class, because that’s how you get there. What the president has put forward is this notion that when you as a parent or as a student are shopping around for an education, you need the same kind of information that we have when we’re shopping for a refrigerator or a car, just in terms of value. What is your loan likely to look like, if you need loans; what are your payments going to look like; and what kind of value are you getting for your money? The goal frankly is to put states and colleges and universities on the hook to answer the question, “What am I getting for my dollars?

So the president has proposed and we are developing a rating system which is frankly intended to compete with U.S. News & World Report’s rating system, which in many ways values the wrong things. It values selectivity, for example, as a measure, as opposed to how many students graduate on time and are they able to pay off their loans successfully. It’s a big investment, and we think we can provide information which can both help students and families make better-informed decisions and help with this notion of driving costs down.


How will this rating system work?

We’re developing it now. It is important to make sure that this rating system doesn’t create incentives to not bring on board the very students we want to serve: the first ones in their families to go to college, the ones who need financial assistance. So we’re going to measure how successful you are not just in enrolling those students but also in making sure they graduate. Because right now, our student aid pays for inputs–how many students enroll–but it doesn’t pay for how much progress you make, and we want to drive the system in that direction. We’re engaging the higher-education sector very aggressively to help us develop this rating system. But it will be developed by the end of next year, and it will be in place for the following school year.