The President’s Advisory Board on Race recently found
that no national discussion on race in public schools is complete
without conservatives invoking the controversial issue of education
vouchers for poor children.
In a December 17, 1997, forum marked by constructive ideas and
barbed comments about race from a White audience member, board members
and other speakers engaged in mostly spirited discussions about how
best to promote both diversity and high educational standards.
Thanks to former education secretary William Bennett, however, the
forum also made clear that any discussion on education will face the
thorny issue of vouchers to help poor children attend private
institutions. Citing failures at inner-city schools in Atlanta,
Chicago, and Philadelphia, he said choice would reinvigorate education.
“The bad schools will be abandoned, and that is richly deserved,”
Bennett said, adding that failure to allow any child to choose between
a public or private school, regardless of income, “is a terrible
injustice. Let the people go.”
But Bennett’s comments drew strong challenges from others.
“We should fix public schools before we move on to private schools,”
said Dr. James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University,
who blamed public school problems in part on low expectations among
staff, most of whom also receive poor preparation.
“The problem is not with children or teachers but with a system of
education that did not train teachers to function and solve problems in
schools,” he said.
Though not necessarily the central problem, race becomes a major issue in this debate, Comer noted.
“It is the training and preparation of teachers that is the major
problem, and then race matters,” said Comer. “Because of race, these
teachers end up dealing with low-income, minority children.”
Segregated minority schools, mostly in inner cities, also face the
toughest challenges – such as lack of resources, high poverty and
dropout rates, and safety concerns – said Gary Orfield, a scholar at
These segregated minority schools are “sixteen times more likely to
have concentrated poverty than White schools,” he said, noting that
other factors in society – such as segregation in housing and White
flight to the suburbs – also undermine public education.
“Residential segregation produces education segregation,” Orfield
said, “and we’re going backwards because our courts are resegregating
Orfield also attacked the notion that vouchers would improve public
education, describing the federal Pell Grant program as a
less-than-successful model of a voucher in higher education.
“The Pell Grant is like a voucher, and it does not guarantee access,” he said.
But Bennett returned regularly to his theme that public schools will
not improve significantly until they face private competition.
“Just give us the students who’ve dropped out – the bottom 5
percent,” he said in seeking at least limited access to vouchers. From
that beginning, experts can accurately judge the promise of vouchers,
Participants also disagreed on the effects of charter schools used
in some communities to promote education reform. Proponents say these
schools, largely public but independent of traditional rules, can help
poor children achieve, while critics say it may resegregate schools.
“Putting all children into charter schools is a fantasy,” said Deborah Meier of Mission Hill School in New York.
The race advisory board chairman, Dr. John Hope Franklin, also was
dubious. He said charter schools in his state, North Carolina, are
often predominantly White, and pay little attention to diversity.
But Arizona public schools are using charter schools to promote both
choice and diversity, according to Lisa Graham Keegan, an Arizona
“Parents are choosing these schools, and there are many minorities in leadership roles,” she said.
Instead of charter schools, however, Orfield would send some urban children to suburban schools.
“You can’t learn to get along with others at a segregated school,”
he said, and most suburbs lack affordable housing options for
inner-city, minority youth.
Orfield believes that learning to work alongside peers of other
races is important because seven of eight African Americans and Latinos
who enter higher education will attend a predominantly White
“Suburban schools for African American kids is not the answer, but it’s part of a solution,” Orfield said.
Other ideas among participants included: more after-school programs
to promote education achievement and safe Communities; conflict
resolution programs to help promote positive relationships; alternative
routes to teacher certification to help attract more individuals into
teaching; and higher-quality vocational/technical programs to better
serve those not planning to attend a four-year college.
Schools also should borrow a page from the military, which has a
clear mission, training, and sense of readiness even despite a large
bureaucracy, Comer said, adding, “We need the same sense of readiness
for all our children.”
Prior to this discussion with national experts, the advisory board
heard from students, parents, and staff from public schools in Fairfax
County, Virginia, a district cited as a model by President Bill Clinton
and others for promoting achievement in a diverse environment.
The board held the forum in Fairfax County, about ten miles from the
nation’s capital, where schools enroll students from dozens of racial
and ethnic groups. At one elementary school, for example, family
backgrounds cover forty nations and twenty languages.
“Teachers are learners as well as instructors,” said Carol Franz, a school principal.
The commitment to diversity continues in the middle and high
schools, where students are clustered “based on diversity, not academic
level,” said Cindy Hook, a high school teacher.
Near the end of this forum, however, a White audience member chastised the board for failing to discuss racial issues in depth.
“This is a discussion on race. There should be sparks flying,” said
Robert Hoy, a member of a group known as Southern Republicans who drew
a chorus of boos when he noted that Whites “do not want to be a
minority in our own homeland.”
Police escorted him out of the building for creating a disruption.
Affirmative action opponents distanced themselves from Hoy’s
comments and later visited the White House to discuss race issues with
President Clinton (see Washington Update, page 4). The advisory board
plans three additional forums, with the next one scheduled Jan. 13 in
RELATED ARTICLE: Board Plans Outreach Effort Aimed at Students
WASHINGTON – College and high school students are the focus of a new program under the Clinton Administration’s race initiative.
To recruit youth for the One America program, President Bill Clinton
last month sent letters to 10 million high school and college leaders
asking them to organize at least one project to bring together youth of
various racial and ethnic groups.
The effort, called Keeping It Real, could involve town meetings,
concerts, speaker series, and other cultural or sporting events,
officials said. Clinton encouraged youth to report back to the White
House on their activities by June 14, either by mail or through the
About one of every four colleges and universities also has agreed to
conduct special programs on race and diversity, officials said. The
American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges
and Universities have signed on to this effort.
One America is focusing on young people because they are among those
most open to an in-depth dialogue on race, according to Judith Winston,
the initiative’s executive director.
“Young Americans’ attitudes on race are different from their parents
and even from their older brothers and sisters,” said Winston.
This message also will spread nationwide through public-service
announcements organized by The Advertising Council and the Leadership
Conference Education Fund. The series of ads will focus on race and
diversity, targeting youth between the ages of seventeen and
For more information, contact One America at (202) 395-1010 or visit
its Internet site at http:// www.whitehouse.gov/Initiatives/One
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