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Middle route to school integration

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POSTED: August 9, 2007 5:03 a.m.
When it comes to race in America, the instinct of left and right is to be clear-cut — binary, even. On or off, up or down, yes or no. Black or white, so to speak.
Like in the recent Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the way public school districts may use race to pursue racial integration.
From the left came apocalyptic fears about a return to the “good old days” before Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in 1954.
The right bristled that the court did not go far enough because it failed to condemn diversity in every way, shape and form.
Where is the political middle in this? Trying to make sense of it all.
To the middle, it makes sense that no child should be forced, because of race, to attend a school far away from his or her home. Yet the middle also thinks integration is a worthy goal. It makes sense for schoolchildren to be exposed to a variety of cultures, political opinions, social classes and, yes, races.
Can school districts offer children this diverse experience without telling kids that, because of race, they must attend a school they do not want to attend?
The default policy in every school district should be that every child is, at first, assigned to the school closest to his or her home. This would, of course, result in many racially unbalanced schools, given the patterns of de facto residential segregation in so many American communities.
That is not a good situation. But the way to fix it is not to apportion students according to race and assign them to the racially appropriate school.
The way to fix it is by giving underprivileged families, no matter what race or ethnic group, the right to choose which school in the district their children will attend. The America of 2007 being the America of 2007, a disproportionate number of those poor kids will be black or Hispanic. So you get ethnic, cultural and social-class diversity, just for starters
Might there be a rush to the best schools in the district and a rush out of the worst? Might the best and most popular schools become so crowded they can’t fit any more neighborhood kids? Might the schools everybody runs away from become nearly empty of students?
There are feasible solutions to all these problems. If a good school becomes too overcrowded, it will stop being so good and parents will send their kids somewhere else, making the school less crowded and eventually, one hopes, high-quality again. And if a school is so bad that students abandon it and it must close, it might, after all, be for the best anyway.
It all sounds so theoretical. But 40 school districts, with about 2.5 million students, allow poor families regardless of race to have their choice of schools, according to Stuart Taylor Jr., writing in The Atlantic.
So somebody in the middle is figuring out how to make this work.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His latest book is “Cubans in America” (Kensington). Send e-mail to rogereh@optonline.net.
 

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