Get ready for George Pataki, the education governor. His campaign literature is already praising the billions he’s pumped into school aid, saying he did it because he “believes all New York children deserve a first-rate education.” His ads in Hispanic and other media offer a similar message, proclaiming Pataki’s “record increases” in education funding. So too, no doubt, will the saturation-level commercials slated to hit mainstream stations this fall. Every time you see or hear one, though, think of David Armor.
David Armor speaks for George Pataki. He embodies Pataki’s most important education initiative: the fight to overturn Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse’s finding last year that the statewide funding formula discriminates against New York City schools. A Virginia-based sociologist who became the state’s most expensive expert witness in the year-long trial, Armor was accused by DeGrasse of “statistical manipulations,” “inexcusable” oversights, and “extremely imprecise” testimony. “His analysis is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that the educational potential of children is limited by their backgrounds,” DeGrasse concluded.
But Pataki decided to appeal DeGrasse’s landmark ruling and a majority of Pataki-appointed judges on the appellate division reversed DeGrasse this June, adopting much of Armor’s rather remarkable logic. A part-time professor at George Mason University who makes most of his income on the witness stand, Armor has contended in almost 40 cases across the country since 1972 that schools don’t matter—whether integrated or segregated, fully funded or shortchanged.
A child’s fate is decided “pretty early” by his or her parents’ socioeconomic status, Armor contended in the New York case, turning the old bromide “the rich get rich and the poor get poorer” into a $175-an-hour mercenary mantra. When Joseph Wayland, an attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the organization challenging the state formula, asked Armor if “any strategy” could “affect achievement levels for inner city students that have reached the seventh- or eighth-grade levels,” he testified: “I don’t think there is very much that can be done to overcome the gaps that you see between the poor and nonpoor.”
Long before New York State paid Armor $250,000 to appear in the DeGrasse case, he’d made such a name for himself crusading against desegregation that David Duke featured the Harvard-trained researcher’s 1995 book, Forced Justice, on his Web site, calling it “an essential contribution to understanding the misguided efforts of social engineering by judicial decree.” Two courts in prior cases explicitly rejected Armor’s testimony as contrary to Brown v. Board of Education, with one appeals panel finding in 1996 that: “Dr. Armor simply does not accept the Supreme Court’s view of the ‘injuries and stigma’ inflicted upon the ‘disfavored race’ by segregation.”
As much a politician as a professor, Armor tried to unseat a Democratic congressman in California in 1982, won a seat on the Los Angeles school board in 1985 as an anti-busing candidate, and took two posts in the Reagan administration, first on the National Council on Education Research and second as an assistant secretary of defense. Though he’s never published an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal, he’s written Rand Corporation reports with titles like “White Flight and the Future of School Desegregation.”
New York State made Armor its expert even though his prior court appearances included racial gems that went well beyond his socioeconomic-status theory:
• Jenkins v. Missouri, 1997. Question: “Do you agree with this statement?: African-American students, if given high standards, a challenging curriculum, accurate resources, and trained teachers, can achieve in school on a par with students of other races?”
Answer: “I disagree with that.”
• Riddick v. School Board of Norfolk, Virginia, 1984. Q: “So one cannot account for differences between blacks and whites solely by socioeconomic data? That’s what you’re saying?”
A: “Yes, there are whole attitudinal dimensions and other lifestyle differences that may also be part of the family differences between black and white.” He specified that “practices like requiring homework” and other “rules of the home that either emphasize school work or not” had a racial component, with blacks and whites of the same socioeconomic status “differing.”
But Armor’s main job for New York State was to make additional funding for city schools pointless by establishing socioeconomic status as the ultimate determinant of educational success. His statistical analysis predictably found “no significant effect of resources on achievement,” though to his own surprise, he did discover a freakish “significant inverse” relationship between expenditures, class size, and achievement. Using school data supplied by the city, Armor actually found that the larger the class and lower the expenditures, the higher the achievement—a result so dubious even he decided not to argue it.
Asked if he’d ever visited an NYC school, Armor testified that he “wanted to,” but didn’t, admitting that he got lost on his first visit to the Brooklyn headquarters of the Board of Education. Though he said he’d visited schools in every other case he’d testified in, he conceded that he hadn’t talked to a single NYC teacher, principal, school board member, or other official. He acknowledged telling attorney Wayland at their first meeting that he “didn’t know anything about the NYC school system,” having never examined any data prior to his work on this case.
Nonetheless Armor found that “the amount of expenditures provided, which varies considerably among NYC schools, does not appear to benefit student performance, after controlling for student background characteristics.” The “principal factors influencing student achievement,” he argued, “occur outside the school, and include poverty, family structure, home environment, and other socioeconomic characteristics.” When Armor contended that “we have to get to the home, especially the home environment of the infant, to raise achievement for disadvantaged students,” he apparently found a welcome audience on the appellate division.
Though the panel never cited Armor by name, the three-judge majority ruled that “more spending on education is not necessarily the answer,” suggesting that “the cure lies in eliminating the socioeconomic conditions facing certain students.” The judges even alluded to the possibility that “investing” public funds in the family “rather than the schools” might have a greater effect.
The one dissenting judge, David Saxe, pointedly took on the Armor argument, charging that it “limits the State’s responsibility to that of providing whatever educational experience would be necessary for some theoretical student, without any socioeconomic disadvantages, to obtain the requisite education.” Saxe countered that to “properly weigh whether a minimally adequate education is being offered, the actual circumstances and needs of all students must be considered,” a onetime axiom in public education reduced in the Pataki era to a minority position.
It was the governor’s insistence on appealing DeGrasse’s decision, and the judges he put at the helm of the appellate division, that effectively elevated Armor’s paralyzing policy analysis to a position of prominence in New York law. Armor assured the Voice that “it’s not being racist to acknowledge that black families are poor and have many single-parent households” and that “there’s going to be a difference in achievement.” To think, he continued, that the gap “can be alleviated by throwing more money at it is a deep misunderstanding of American society.”
Pataki celebrated the appellate decision as a “victory” even though his own campaign claim to school fame is adding billions in statewide funding. Obviously the governor did not get down in the trenches and handpick Armor as the state’s expert, but the two are joined by a mutual mission, the gutting of the hope of equitable funding that DeGrasse temporarily gave NYC school children.
Research assistance: Ross Goldberg, Chris Heaney, Matteen Mokalla