Not surprisingly, the Bush administration is supporting the plaintiffs’ arguments that the use of such racial criteria is unconstitutional. It was no doubt delighted to hear Justice Anthony Kennedy say during oral arguments that “characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin should only be, if ever allowed, allowed as a last resort.”
But Bush officials are being inconsistent. They don’t apply that standard to their own public education policies. It’s time they embraced the premise of their own student testing rules – race matters – and support efforts to promote access and diversity in schools.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, is remarkable because it deals with racial issues in a manner at odds with nearly every other policy advocated by the Bush administration – including its current argument to the Supreme Court that school desegregation plans must be “race neutral.” NCLB requires that schools show adequate progress in each of 10 “subgroups” of students. These subgroups include nonracial categories such as disabled, poor, and limited English proficient students, as well as racial and ethnic categories such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians, native Americans, and whites.
So schools are free to say, “sorry, you’re black and don’t have high enough scores to be admitted to this college program” but can penalize a school for not meeting AYP for a sub-group of black students?
I suppose that you can make the argument that these “failures” should have been addressed by the time a student leaves the public school system and that is exactly what NCLB is trying to do. But that does bring up the problem with proposed vouchers solutions, why can a public school lose money because it doesn’t meet accountability standards but a private school can accept vouchers without meeting the same standards?
Then there are the implications for a NCLB system for colleges that is being proposed at both the state and federal level. Will colleges be evaluated on the performance of “sub-groups?” This would probably encourage schools not to make “modifications” or “exceptions” to admission standards so that they can reduce the number of students admitted that would need extra help. (Wow, what would happen to college football and basketball?)
I can see where advocates for minority populations will be outraged and do everything possible to prevent such actions. However, there would be another side to this. What happens when the minority students admitted under “the equal” criteria start failing at a higher rate than the general student population? Wouldn’t that prove that there is something about the college environment that hinders success among these minority students? Wouldn’t schools have to spend more money on these students to prevent them from showing up as a failing sub-group on whatever evaluation system is being used?
It seems to me society recognizes that it is important for our schools to succeed at educating “minority” students given that they will be a majority in a generation or two is some of our largest states, Texas included. But why should colleges and private schools get off the hook at having to admit applicants and avoid struggling “sub-groups” while public schools are punished for failing them? If we acknowledge that it’s essential for society to educate these students then what are we doing to assist schools in this task? How many private schools would be for a voucher system if they had to take any student that applied and potentially loose their ability to have any other students funded if some should fail?
The principled interpretation of NCLB is that race shouldn’t matter, therefore schools will be evaluated to make sure that they succeed at educating all students so we look at racial categories to make sure no group is being ignored. However, if the data show that race still matters in the public schools, why shouldn’t colleges develop programs to help address those deficiencies so that these students can succeed in college? Are we saying that even though we acknowledge that the public schools have failed certain groups that anything done to address that failure outside the public schools is discrimination?
Yet NCLB is a tacit admission that race matters. How can the Bush administration force primary and secondary schools to pay specific attention to test scores of students of particular racial groups while arguing that similar racial attention should be illegal for admission to the same public schools being tested? Even conservative opponents of affirmative action have called this approach “schizophrenic” and unprincipled.