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Article of Interest - Culture

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Bridges4Kids LogoCommentary: Class is the Real Issue in Schools
Proposal to stop racial stats could refocus assistance.
by Derek Melot, Lansing State Journal, August 5, 2003

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Ward Connerly brought the wrong ballot issue to Michigan.

The California anti-affirmative action activist wants Michigan to ban affirmative action, just as his home state did.

But what Connerly should have brought to Michigan is an idea he still is trying to sell to California: A ballot initiative to bar state government from identifying citizens by race, ethnicity, color or national origin.

This actually could breathe life into our ossified education debate - and help some kids.

It is a sad fact in our culture that the issue of race often masks that of class.

The two strongest indicators of whether a child will struggle in school have nothing to do with skin color - participation in the federal free lunch program and the educational attainment of the parents.

It matters not if the child is black in Detroit or white in Appalachia. Blend poverty with little education in the home and you have a recipe for trouble for the child.

Helping such children succeed is a legitimate role for government. But we've come at it the wrong way.

Affirmative action is grounded on race, not the circumstances of birth. This creates all sorts of mischief, such as massaging college admissions standards to ensure the right look.

For example, affirmative action supporters should ask themselves if they think government should give a leg up to a child whose parents went to college, who isn't hurting economically and attends a school that can afford first-rate faculty and facilities.

Seems silly, doesn't it? Yet under affirmative action as the University of Michigan and other schools practice it, such children can get a leg up ... if they are of the "right" race.

These policies may make a student body more diverse visually; life experience and real need are another matter.

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, author Peter Sacks noted that while more than 1 in 5 students at selective schools are minorities, only 3 percent are from families of "modest" social and economic circumstances. A full three-quarters of the student bodies came from the top economic echelon.

Selective universities are just one aspect of this reality. Michigan, like most other states, accepted a wide disparity in the quality and funding for K-12 education. Proposal A has closed some of the gap, but parents with the wherewithal know which school districts to move into ... and which ones to avoid.

And school districts with top-flight facilities and engaged parents also have less trouble attracting veteran teachers.

As a nation, we are divided by income and education, but we argue about - and build policies on - race.

Say what you will about the man, but Connerly is right in one big thing - America needs to move beyond race. Yet, how can we if we focus so much official attention on it?

Taking away racial categories would force government to look at issues differently and develop new strategies to address them.

Granted, there are problems with a blanket end to the compiling of all racial data, most notably in the study of diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. But that doesn't preclude the potential benefit to blow up and rebuild the education debate.

After all, it doesn't matter that a particular child is black or white ... only that he has a chance to succeed.

What do you think? Write Derek Melot, Lansing State Journal, 120 E. Lenawee, Lansing, MI 48919. For past columns, visit  


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