Should Public Schools Be Racist?

Can public schools make student assignment decisions based solely on race? That’s just one of the questions before the Supreme Court today in pair of school integration cases (Parents Involved V. Seattle School District No. 1, and Meredith V. Jefferson County Board Of Education).

My one sentence opinion on these policies:  Trying to promote meaningful integration through race-based school assignment policies is like trying to promote love through arranged marriages.

Put less briefly, these cases raise four important questions about race-based assignment:

- Is it legal (the only question the Court will address)?
- Does it do any good?
- Does it do any harm? And,
- Is there a better way to achieve the same goals?

I’ll leave a thorough analysis of the first question to the Justices and to Cato’s legal scholars, though it’s hard for me to fathom how anyone could find purely race-based student assignment decisions consistent with “equal protection of the laws.”

Do forced public school integration policies do any good? It is fair to say that the answer is no, since they have not even achieved the immediate result of integrating schools. After half a century of compulsory integration policies, public schools are little more racially integrated today than they were before such policies were introduced in the early 1970s. It is not even clear that racial balance at the school level is the right goal, since it does not necessarily produce meaningful integration. It is common for students to sort themselves into cliques along racial or ethnic lines, and to have comparatively little interaction with those outside their own group. Schools that seem “integrated” on paper do not always have meaningfully integrated hallways, lunchrooms, or even classrooms.

Do they do any harm? In numerous ways, yes. Attempting to force racial balance in schools through busing not only failed to achieve the immediate goal of public school integration, it dramatically increased residential segregation by driving the (predominantly white) middle class to the suburbs (middle class blacks fled, too, but were fewer in number). Denying students their first choice of public school based solely on race is likely to drive still more families to suburban districts that do not use such assignment policies (or to the private sector), hence further aggravating residential segregation. And clearly, denying children their first choice of school is harmful in and of itself.

Is there a better way? Of course! And better in every respect! The right solution is to introduce a system of financial assistance to ensure that all families have access to the public or private school of their choice. First of all, such programs lead to greater school-level integration and reduced residential segregation. Second, integration in the private sector tends to be more meaningful (children are more likely to choose to sit with peers of different races in private school lunchrooms than is the case in public schools). Third, the most significant educational benefits to private schooling tend to be enjoyed by African Americans, both in achievement and graduation rates.

An overwhelming body of evidence points to parental choice and market incentives as a better way of achieving meaningful integration and improved educational opportunities for minority children. Those truly concerned with advancing the cause of civil rights have to realize that race-based student assignment within a government school monopoly has been and continues to be both ineffective and counter-productive.