Public School Choice and Racial Balance

Commentary by Pete du Pont

If you thought the Congressional elections of 1994 marked the end of liberalism and a new era of conservative government, look at what the education establishment is doing to school choice back home. A current example comes from Delaware, where the State Board of Education has blunted a new public school choice law by insisting it comply with racial quotas.

In Delaware, all the traditional school improvements advocated by the education establishment and the teachers unions have been tried: smaller classes, higher teachers salaries, earlier education and, of course, spending more money. Meanwhile, SAT scores have dropped 19 points in 10 years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores for math showed Delaware students 28th in the nation, and the state now has the highest percentage in the nation (20%) of students attending private schools.

But suddenly last summer two events created a surge of hope for Delaware parents. Governor Thomas R. Carper signed a public school choice bill in July and a few weeks later Federal District Court Judge Sue L. Robinson lifted the controversial busing order that for 17 years had decreed that a school's racial balance was more important than excellence, student achievement, or the individual needs of a child.

Now parents would be able to choose the public school (space permitting) their children would attend in September, 1996. Freedom, opportunity and optimism were in the summer air.

But it was a false dawn. On October 19th, just 66 days after Judge Robinson lifted the busing order, the empire struck back. The State Board of Education and its top management strongly endorsed local school district policies subjugating school choice to racial quotas.

The "new freedom and opportunity" provided by choice, said State Board President Paul R. Fine, "must not be at the cost of diversity in our public schools." Read that again, slowly. Individual freedom and educational opportunity are subservient to something called "diversity," as defined by state government.

Such policies are the core of welfare state liberalism: the government will decide just how much freedom and opportunity your children will be allowed, but in no case will it be so much as to upset the policies of the state. A federal court ends busing to achieve racial balance in our schools? Not to worry, it will be reinstated by order of the educational bureaucracy. For above all, in Mr. Fine's words, "schools...must mirror the public they serve."

So much for scholarship. So much for individual freedom. And so much for the Constitution, which uses the word diversity not at all but speaks volumes about liberty and the unalienable right to pursue opportunity.

Several school districts, including the state's largest, have already adopted policies that will deny a student's choice of school if it would upset the racial balance of the school. So a de facto quota is now in place: no whites may transfer into school A; or no more than a certain number of blacks will be allowed into school B. Delaware's school assignment policies have regressed a full century, once again allocating students based upon the color of their skin.

Most disturbing, though, is the reasoning of the State Board. The 1977 District Court busing order, as mistaken as it was, prohibited the state from assigning pupils to schools in racially disparate numbers. The Delaware State Board's policy forbids children from choosing to attend schools in a way that will result in racial disparity within them.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the assignment of children to school by race was first permitted (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896); then forbidden (Brown v. Board of Education , 1954); and now constitutionally required (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, 1971). But these decisions all addressed the question of government assignment of children to schools. The Delaware Board of Education has carried the policy a step further. Now individuals may not choose to act in a way that does not "mirror" society.

It is not a new idea, of course. Soviet Russia and Communist China governed societies based upon the principle that the individual was subservient to the state.

But it is an interesting idea, particularly viewed in juxtaposition with Thomas Jefferson's view that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their creator" (not the government) "with certain unalienable rights" (that is, unalienable by the government), "including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If memory serves, our Constitution was based upon Mr. Jefferson's vision.

Nevertheless, the educational bureaucracy grinds on, limiting students' pursuit of opportunity just when it should be adopting a more enlightened policy.

Why should government recoil from a straightforward policy with which every parent agrees: no child will be denied admission to the school of their choice because of the color of their skin?