Barack Obama has deftly begun what could be his most significant legacy on racial equity.
Did you miss it? Most people did.
In early December, the administration sent new guidelines to the nation’s 17,000 school districts about how to address “racial isolation” in primary and secondary schools. It also sent new guidelines to college administrators about promoting racial diversity in admissions policies. The new directives are notable for the ways in which they reverse the spirit of George W. Bush’s 2008 dictate against race as a consideration for school admissions.
Obama’s message was that schools and universities need to stay within the law, but that they may get creative in crafting policies that promote diversity. The administration says it will have their back, within constitutionally allowable limits.
It’s a critical difference in approach. The Bush administration issued its directive to schools and universities to avoid considering a student’s race in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on racial preferences in education. The Obama administration’s gambit is bold, offering suggestions for skirting the high court’s strictures using methods already in use by savvy admissions offices.
For example, the guidelines suggest that other factors might be considered as proxies for race, such as a student’s socio-economic status, whether they are the first in their family to attend college, or whether the family moved often during the student’s formative years.
Yes, this is affirmative action in education. Although advocates long ago shifted from using that term, and the courts have found many practices associated with it constitutionally unsound, it is still needed. At the same time, many of the administration’s suggestions are race-neutral. They would be of equal benefit to a low-income white student from a rural area as they would be for a black or Latino student from a big city.
Diversity is the stated goal now, and that term encompasses far more than simply race. Race cannot be the determining or sole factor in granting college acceptance or in drawing school boundaries, but it can be among a wide range of considerations.
In its new guidelines, the administration cited recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions that support the idea of diversity in classrooms as beneficial to all in developing analytical skills, dismantling stereotypes and preparing students for a global workplace.
I would make a broader appeal for concerted action to close the race gaps at all levels of education: It’s in our national interest.
It is well known that black, Latino and Native American students have higher dropout rates than whites and Asians; they also have much lower rates of entering, much less finishing, college. Now pause to consider that these underperforming minority groups account for 39 percent of the nation’s K-12 student body. A lackluster future comes into focus, and not just for the students themselves. The United States will not be globally competitive if it wastes the talent and potential of such a large proportion of it population.
This does not mean standards have to be “dumbed down,” to use an offensive term that often implies black and Hispanic students are inherently less able to learn. Rather, the guidelines encourage mentoring and tutoring programs, links between universities and racially isolated school districts, and other approaches that could eventually funnel more such students into college and then the workforce.
The Obama administration has offered encouragement to educators focused on improving opportunity for all. They will have to devise their own plans and implement them fairly.
For too long, the impetus to do the right thing in education has come from guilt. Support for desegregation plans often came as a remedy to the lingering effects of legalized segregation.
The Obama approach is forward thinking. It speaks to readying the nation with a diverse, globally competitive workforce.
The measurable effects will be a long time in coming, and one can imagine court challenges along the way. But at least the current White House occupant had the courage to issue a call to action.