Thoughts on diversity

Liam Julian

Justin Cohen, a panelist at Fordham's recent Are Bad Schools Immortal? event, said that nobody should oppose, and nobody he knows opposes, engineering public schools' student bodies to be more racially varied.* But is the first part, the ?should? part, true? Might a parent not rightfully be concerned that, say, his child's affluent, mostly white, high-performing school would suffer if lots of poor, black pupils were transferred into it? Might he not fairly fret that the school's teachers would change their instructional methods?perhaps making their classes less challenging?to accommodate the new pupils, who may not be as academically advanced as the school's original denizens? Might he not justifiably worry that new students will bring new discipline problems?

These anxieties are not pernicious and trivial. And regardless, they are real. Parents do worry over such things. Parents also worry that policymakers who zealously pursue school diversity?will dismiss or ignore the difficulties that such diversity causes and will?dismiss or ignore (or be contemptuous of) parents who have misgivings about their children's schools being thusly radically changed.

Several points to make. First, a parent's primary and overriding concern about K-12 schools often is and can unobjectionably be (and perhaps should be) the education that his child receives. Second, a parent deserves no scorn for putting his child's well-being first, for being wary of large-scale changes to the student body of his child's school, or for suspecting far-flung parties of wishing to use his child's well-functioning school in a rash social- and education-policy experiment. Third, the responsibility for explaining and justifying any inter-school racial diversification belongs to policymakers: they must clarify in detail why increasing racial diversity is right and good and maybe even necessary; how they will keep a given school's educational atmosphere from degrading; how new pupils will be incorporated into that school's existing culture; etc.

Schools can be racially and economically diverse and still offer their pupils a top-flight education. The data prove it. Obviously, though, fostering such a situation requires attention?an attention that is oftentimes lacking. Parents?familiar with?the history of busing;?who are acquainted with the shoddy manner in which public schools are frequently run; who know that district and state leaders can operate carelessly and yet accrue no personal consequences; who understand that a handful of unruly pupils whose actions go uncorrected can fatally disrupt classroom learning; who?comprehend that a ?culture of achievement? in a school is a fragile thing have justification for opposing the engineering of public schools' student bodies to be more racially varied.

*Cohen may argue that this is not what he said?that, in fact, he said only that people back the idea of racially diverse public schools. Of course, the only way to achieve such an idea is to engineer it; diverse schools don't occur naturally in the wild.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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