Politics & Policy

No Race Left Behind

The unfortunate racial lens of NCLB.

The No Child Left Behind law is currently up for reauthorization. Beloved by President Bush and designed to hold school districts accountable if their children do not perform well on the standardized tests the law requires them to take, NCLB was and remains controversial among conservatives, as a recent article in the Washington Post made clear. But one part of it has generated surprisingly little debate, but ought to — namely the law’s requirement that schools track the scores of racial subgroups of students, and that each group hit the target pass rate on the tests.

This focus on race is disturbing but ubiquitous. President Bush has stated his desire to close racial “gaps” not only in test scores but also in, for instance, homeownership. Federal, state, and local governments are likewise urged to ensure that their contracts be doled out to businesses whose owners match broader society’s racial proportions; and, of course, there is the lasting desire of both public and private universities to have student bodies reflecting a predetermined, politically correct racial and ethnic mix — a.k.a. “diversity.”

To be sure, many of those comfortable with NCLB’s approach are forthright in opposing outright racial and ethnic preferences to meet quotas, as is commonly done in university admissions, employment, and contracting. So what about a federal program that simply focuses on racial and ethnic disparities in K-12 academic performance, as NCLB does — what’s wrong with that?

It’s not as bad, but it’s still bad. A national program that ends up requiring school districts to target, say, black children and improving their academic performance inevitably sends a condescending and debilitating message to them (“You are behind the white kids, and we must help you catch up!”). Such a focus will inevitably end up treating non-blacks unfairly, and is divisive for all.

Consider a simplified example. A school district is trying to decide on which of two schools to spend money raised by a bond issue. It wants to target some school that has done poorly on recent standardized tests, and there are two candidates. The first school is attended largely by poor Appalachian whites and recently immigrated Asians. The second school is attended largely by middle-class blacks and Latinos. The first school actually has lower scores and could use the money more, but, in all the schools in the school district, whites and Asians generally score much higher than blacks and Hispanics. Where will the money go?

Well, there’s no question that NCLB will push the district to send the money to the black/Latino school. This is an extreme — and perhaps unrealistic — example, but the point is that here and elsewhere NCLB will push school districts to allocate resources with an eye on the racial and ethnic bottom line. Administrators are being told that it is a bigger problem when Lamont or Juanita score badly than when Lee or Caitland does. Not because they are poor, or come from a broken (or never formed) family, or anything like that, but simply because they share the same skin color as others who are not performing well.

An aside: Many supporters of the NCLB approach want to turn education into a civil-rights issue. This is a mistake. The instinct is understandable, insofar as it is rooted in the truth that academic failure is a much more significant obstacle to advancement these days than is racial discrimination. So why not say that the today’s real civil rights issue is education? Simply put, this racializes the education issue and implies that there is something discriminatory about a system that doesn’t yield results in perfect racial proportions.

One high school in California was the subject of controversy earlier this year because it held separate assemblies — one for whites, one for Asians, one for Latinos, and one for blacks — to announce the standardized test results for students there. The principal justified the practice by saying that, otherwise, the students would harass each other because different racial groups scored differently — and, of course, that’s how the scores are reported and how federal law is focused. A bad decision by the principal, to be sure, but what do you expect when the law requires this bean counting?

–Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Va.

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