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June 08, 2011
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Last week, the Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance for school districts and institutions of higher education
on constitutionally-sound ways to encourage racial diversity and avoid
racial isolation. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of well-conceived
efforts (like “controlled choice” a la Kahlenberg) to promote school
integration, and I think Washington, D.C. is sorely in need of such an approach. (That’s what D.C. parents should be fighting for–not an end to school choice.)
Furthermore, on “local flexibility” grounds, I’m willing to give
school districts some leeway if they want to make school integration a
That said, the guidance
for elementary and secondary education includes some odious and
potentially damaging suggestions for America’s 150-odd
academically-selective public high schools–including powerhouses like
New York’s Stuyvesant and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson:
Some school districts have schools or programs to which
students apply and are selected through a competitive admissions
process. School districts seeking to achieve diversity or avoid racial
isolation may develop admissions procedures for competitive schools or
programs to further those interests.
Example 1: A school district could identify
race-neutral criteria for admission to a school (e.g., minimum academic
qualifications and talent in art) and then conduct a lottery for all
qualified applicants rather than selecting only those students with the
highest scores under the admission criteria, if doing so would help to
achieve racial diversity or avoid racial isolation.
Example 2: For students who meet the basic
admissions criteria, a school district could give greater weight to the
applications of students based on their socioeconomic status, whether
they attend underperforming feeder schools, their parents’ level of
education, or the average income level of the neighborhood from which
the student comes, if the use of one or more of these additional factors
would help to achieve racial diversity or avoid racial isolation.
Note the phrases “minimum academic qualifications” and “basic
admissions criteria.” Schools like Stuyvesant and TJ aren’t supposed to
be about “minimum qualifications” but places for the best of the best.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
I suppose if you set the bar high enough, these approaches wouldn’t
be crazy. For example, anyone who scores in the 99th percentile on the
PSAT gets into the lottery pool, and from there it’s up to chance. But
achievement gaps being what they are, schools would have to set the bar
much lower in order to make a dent on racial diversity. Let’s say that
admissions officers determine that a 70th percentile cut-off would yield
the desired demographic results. Schools could achieve more diversity
but would be passing over many 99th-percentile superstars for
kids from the upper-middle of the achievement spectrum. That would
dramatically alter the nature of these schools.
The guidance is only that– suggestions, not mandatory requirements.
Stuyvesant, TJ, and their peers are free to ignore it. Still, it’s
telling that ED and DOJ would make this sort of recommendation for high
schools but not for selective colleges. They wouldn’t dare tell Harvard
or Stanford to put everyone with a 1200 combined verbal/math SAT score
into a hat and choose its next class by lottery. There’d be hell to pay.
But it’s just as bad an idea for K-12.