Op-Ed: Moving beyond race-conscious educational decision-making

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Parents v. Seattle nudges the nation further along the path of race-neutral decision-making in the educational arena. Unlike the 2003 Michigan cases that dealt with racial preferences in higher education, the latest case strikes down the use of race in pupil assignment to K-12 schools in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle, Wash. By doing so the Court agreed with the parents that the diversity plans being challenged violated the equal protection rights of the white students to attend the schools of their choice.

How should we view the 5-4 decision in which the crucial fifth vote by Justice Anthony Kennedy still makes allowance for schools to pursue the praiseworthy goal of greater diversity through the use of race-neutral measures? Presumably, these would include the use of magnet schools and plans that use socioeconomics rather than race to promote greater diversity.

The adverse Supreme Court decision was not unexpected. Therefore, it should not be received as a blow that knocks one off one’s feet. Instead, it could have the positive outcome of forcing minority advocates to work collectively towards identifying race-neutral strategies to improve the educational experiences of students trapped in low-performing schools.

The Court’s ruling does not have to be viewed as a huge setback for those concerned about failing urban schools. Instead, it can provide a new opportunity for concerned citizens of all races to focus their energies and resources on improving the educational experience of students in low performing schools. One aspect of this must involve changing the cultural norms and behavior patterns that work against high achievement among large numbers of minority youth in segregated schools.

Since Nashville does not use race in pupil assignments and the city has been recognized as having some of the best magnet schools in the country, it will be little affected by the decision in Parents v. Seattle. Nevertheless, there are thousands of minority students trapped in low-performing Metro schools who deserve a better break than they are presently getting. Unfortunately, their problems will not be rectified by the adoption of standard school attire (i.e. uniforms) for fall 2007. The problems of the poorest students are simply too great for that to be a key element in remedying the decision. What are needed are more resources, better teachers and involved parents.

I believe that measurable success can be attained in graduation rates and in achievement scores. These will come when we expand our efforts beyond diversity gestures to vigorously identify and address negative factors that impede minority success. These include a lack of parental involvement in schools, ineffective study skills, and the negative impact of peer pressure. These factors can combine with substandard environmental conditions at home to adversely affect the life chances of students from poor backgrounds.

All of us can make it our business to monitor and address inequities in school funding and local decisions that place poor schools at a competitive disadvantage for basic goods and services.

As we mull over last week’s decision, we should remember that the integration promises of Brown v. Board of Education have never been achieved. Racially segregated housing, the size and distribution of the minority populations in cities and towns and the overrepresentation of minorities among the poor have worked in concert to prevent meaningful school integration.

Consequently, it makes strategic sense to direct our collective energies improving the experiences that minority students can have in segregated schools. A key component of our strategy must include identifying and changing negative cultural norms that limit and structure the ability of minorities to compete effectively in the classroom and in the larger society.

Carol Swain, professor of law and political science, is the editor and contributor to a newly published book of essays titled Debating Immigration. Swain is also the author of the highly acclaimed book Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress, which won the 1994 Woodrow Wilson prize for the best book on government published in the United States and The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration. Swain is an authority on voting rights law and is frequently consulted on the Voting Rights Act.

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