The Obama Administration’s War on Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson

By 12/09/2011

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Last week, the Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance for school districts and institutions of higher education on constitutionally-sound ways to encourage racial diversity and avoid racial isolation. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of well-conceived efforts (like “controlled choice” a la Kahlenberg) to promote school integration, and I think Washington, D.C. is sorely in need of such an approach. (That’s what D.C. parents should be fighting for–not an end to school choice.)

Furthermore, on “local flexibility” grounds, I’m willing to give school districts some leeway if they want to make school integration a high priority.

That said, the guidance for elementary and secondary education includes some odious and potentially damaging suggestions for America’s 150-odd academically-selective public high schools–including powerhouses like New York’s Stuyvesant and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson:

Some school districts have schools or programs to which students apply and are selected through a competitive admissions process. School districts seeking to achieve diversity or avoid racial isolation may develop admissions procedures for competitive schools or programs to further those interests.

Example 1: A school district could identify race-neutral criteria for admission to a school (e.g., minimum academic qualifications and talent in art) and then conduct a lottery for all qualified applicants rather than selecting only those students with the highest scores under the admission criteria, if doing so would help to achieve racial diversity or avoid racial isolation.

Example 2: For students who meet the basic admissions criteria, a school district could give greater weight to the applications of students based on their socioeconomic status, whether they attend underperforming feeder schools, their parents’ level of education, or the average income level of the neighborhood from which the student comes, if the use of one or more of these additional factors would help to achieve racial diversity or avoid racial isolation.

Note the phrases “minimum academic qualifications” and “basic admissions criteria.” Schools like Stuyvesant and TJ aren’t supposed to be about “minimum qualifications” but places for the best of the best. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I suppose if you set the bar high enough, these approaches wouldn’t be crazy. For example, anyone who scores in the 99th percentile on the PSAT gets into the lottery pool, and from there it’s up to chance. But achievement gaps being what they are, schools would have to set the bar much lower in order to make a dent on racial diversity. Let’s say that admissions officers determine that a 70th percentile cut-off would yield the desired demographic results. Schools could achieve more diversity but would be passing over many 99th-percentile superstars for kids from the upper-middle of the achievement spectrum. That would dramatically alter the nature of these schools.

The guidance is only that– suggestions, not mandatory requirements. Stuyvesant, TJ, and their peers are free to ignore it. Still, it’s telling that ED and DOJ would make this sort of recommendation for high schools but not for selective colleges. They wouldn’t dare tell Harvard or Stanford to put everyone with a 1200 combined verbal/math SAT score into a hat and choose its next class by lottery. There’d be hell to pay. But it’s just as bad an idea for K-12.

-Mike Petrilli

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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