Public School Segregation Returns to Pennsylvania

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By Tim Cavanaugh

As Sinclair Lewis should have said, when segregation returns to American public schools it will come wrapped in a union contract and carrying a copy of The State of America's Children.

A high school principal in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is defending a policy of separating an underperforming segment of the student body -- and he's not talking about the Amish. From the Daily Mail:

The scheme, at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, separates black students from the rest of the school pupils, and then further breaks it down into black females and black males.

The separation is only for a short period  - six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month - but it has drawn criticism for raising the spectre of racial segregation.

That use of "spectre" (apologies for any and all U.K. spellings) is cute. If the specter of segregation is being raised that's because the policy is in fact segregation.

McCaskey Principal Bill Jimenez clearly takes the specter seriously enough to highlight that we're only talking about a few minutes a day. But if that period is too short to cause offense, it's almost certainly too short to make a difference in the education of a student. The Philly Inquirer has a pretty thorough description of how the program works. (Think "Pants on the Ground" performed by somebody with a teaching credential.)

While there is some evidence that girls perform better when separated from the loathsome presence of males, the case for the remedial benefits of race segregation is less clear. I'm not making an absolutist color-blind argument here: Whether they work or not, race-aware educational programs in the post-integration era were put in place to address a history of state-supported injustice that went entirely in one direction. To point out that they go against the ideal of a color-neutral society doesn't end the argument, and this is an area where the utilitarian case (Blast regulations! You only get one chance to educate a kid!) is particularly strong.

But this is not an extracurricular activity, a parochial school, or any other choice-based setting. This is the state monopoly laying its finger on a black kid and making him report to a different homeroom based on his race. Before taking such an extraordinary step, you’d better be pretty sure it will help the student.

What’s stunning is the presumption of rightness the policy seems to be getting. Although the school has taken some flak, the comments in the Daily Mail story are almost all favorable. A Temple professor of something called “urban education” salutes the school for “trying a new strategy to effect change" and helping “students feel engaged and connected to what the school has to offer.” NAACP head Benjamin Jealous and Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, who have lately been slamming a North Carolina school district for trying to move from busing to “neighborhood schools,” don’t appear to have anything to say on this issue.

The idea seems to be that segregation is bad when it results from the choices made by private people, but helpful when it's clothed in liberal good intentions and forced on students deemed to be collectively underperforming. Or when it only last six minutes a day.

If you missed Reason's school choice week, now's your chance to do a little remedial education yourself.


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