The Breakfast Table

Don’t Forget the Judges

Dear Abby:

Okay, I agree that the polling evidence doesn’t explain what is going on. And indeed, I don’t think parents speaking up explains much. It’s the judiciary that is really driving much of the change. And on race-related issues, many judges do seem increasingly uninterested in what the organized civil rights community thinks. New times, new issues, new worries; the old moral and constitutional framework no longer quite works.

I knew this, and yet I could hardly believe we won in the most recent Boston Latin case. Against all expectations, the First Circuit Court of Appeals–not known for its conservatism–threw out the system of thinly disguised racial quotas for admission. Thinly-disguised, but constitutionally okay, almost everyone thought. The Boston School Committee evidently can’t believe the bad news; it’s stupidly appealing the decision to the Supreme Court? Even though not even the Boston NAACP wanted it to do so.

San Francisco is going down the same dumb road, going all out in an attempt to beat off a legal challenge to its extraordinarily cumbersome and rigid pupil assignment system in which where you go to school differs depending upon whether you are Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Hispanic, American Indian, African American, etc. You might think the city would have gotten the message after the passage of 209: forget the boxes. Let’s educate the kids.

Of course educating the kids is much more difficult than moving them around from one school to another on the basis of their complexion. But at least the conversation on black education does seem really to be opening up. Do you remember the Washington Post article on black academic performance in Shaker Heights that appeared a little while back? Middle class kids, per pupil expenditures of about $10,000 a year, and all kinds of help for students in academic difficulty–after-school, weekend, and summer classes, mentors, etc. But half of all black 12th-graders did not even qualify for the “basic” level on a national reading assessment. And that squares with the national data, which shows the typical black student in 12th grade with the reading and math skills of the average white 8th-grader.

Maybe if we can finally talk about the problem, we’ll get serious about fixing it.