Choosing Quality Education Over Multicultural Perfection


(A New Visions Commentary published April 1996 by Project 21, a project of The National Center for Public Policy Research. New Visions Commentaries are the opinion of their author and not necessary those of Project 21.)

Black children are inherently incapable of learning unless seated near white children. Only when enveloped by the intellectual aura of white children can black children receive a meaningful education. Or so hold the opponents of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Plan (MPCP).

The MPCP provides vouchers to parents who are permitted to select the school their children will attend. It is the product of the Herculean efforts of Wisconsin legislator Polly Williams.

The MPCP is being challenged in court by the Milwaukee teachers union and others who oppose school choice. The opponents argue that the MPCP will result in the resegregation of public schools. The presumption is that white parents will choose to send their children to predominantly white schools and black parents will send their children to predominantly black schools.

The NAACP has gone on record opposing school choice. The organization has tenaciously clung to the school desegregation cum integration orthodoxy. In fact, the organization has censured members who depart from the NAACP's busing groupthink. Kenneth Jenkins, head of the Yonkers, N.Y. NAACP chapter was recently suspended for questioning the utility of busing for the purpose of racial balance. Mr. Jenkins compounded his infraction by opining that perhaps the primary focus should be on quality education. The head of the Bergen County, New Jersey NAACP was threatened with suspension for voicing similar heresies.

But in an amicus curiae brief filed on behalf of the Center for New Black Leadership (CNBL), Michael Williams notes that the NAACP's position is at odds with that of its founder, W.E.B. DuBois, who stated that "the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is education."

More recently, Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion in the Kansas City desegregation case, Missouri vs. Jenkins, stated "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

But it is not only the courts presiding over desegregation cases that make such assumptions. It is also the assumption of many in the group rights lobby who assert that public schools not integrated to achieve a proper racial mix are invariably inferior and consequently in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The fallacy in this argument is obvious: "integration" and "desegregation" are not synonymous. The equal protection clause prohibits purposeful racial segregation in public schools. But the clause does not mandate integregation so that public schools reflect the racial composition of the surrounding community. In other words, while de jure, racial segregation is prohibited, racial integration is not required.

And that is precisely the argument made by the CNBL in its amicus brief.

The MPCP would violate the 14th Amendment only if the state's intent in adopting the program was to segregate public schools. That is emphatically not the case. Principal sponsor Polly Williams seeks to improve educational opportunities for poor children and has been fighting the predominantly white education establishment for years in an attempt to do so. School choice enjoys overwhelming support from blacks. Its approval rating among blacks in the most recent polls hover between 70% to 80%. Many black parents simply want an alternative to schools they perceive as having failed their children.

Should school choice perpetuate racial isolation, it will not be due to state action. Rather, it will be because parents, white and black, are making decisions they believe are in the best interest of their children. Such decisions may threaten the racial engineers in the group rights lobby, but they are not prohibited by the 14th Amendment.

Voluntary racial isolation in our pluralistic culture is clearly undesirable, giving rise to a host of societal ills. But racial engineering by the state, even in the ostensibly "benign" form of compulsory integration, is contemptible, and likely to result in racial resentment.

School choice may ultimately prove not to be the panacea many of its proponents claim it to be. School choice proposals that include private schools may result in government involvement in such institutions, a horrible prospect for most school choice advocates.

But the defenders of the status quo are bucking a wave of dissatisfaction with public school education, a wave causing more and more parents of all races to choose academic quality over multicultural perfection.


by Peter Kirsanow, a member of the national Advisory Council for Project 21, a labor lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio and a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for New Black Leadership.

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