WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, like many liberals, seems afflicted by Sixties Nostalgia Syndrome, a longing for the high drama and moral clarity of the civil rights era. Speaking in Alabama at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 45th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march, Duncan vowed to unleash on public schools legions of lawyers wielding Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They supposedly will rectify what he considers civil rights violations, such as too many white students in high school advanced placement classes.
Duncan said "the civil rights struggle" has become "more complex since the days of Selma." He seems not to understand that today's complexities of equity are complex because they are not about "rights."
He says his rights enforcers -- 600 of them, with a $103 million budget -- will "remedy discrimination," such as students being "treated unequally" by policies that have what is called a "disparate impact" on certain groups. For example, Duncan asks: "How can we assure that low-income Latino and African-American students get the same access to a college-prep curriculum, AP classes and college as other students?" But "access" obscures the problem.
The Supreme Court has held that Title VI bans "disparate treatment," meaning intentional discrimination such as denying access to minorities, not policies that have a "disparate impact" on minorities. No policy denies minority or low-income students "access" to AP classes.
The pertinent lesson of the 1960s is the futility of casting today's problems of social class, as Duncan does, in the anachronistic categories of the civil rights era. In 1966, the seismic Coleman Report concluded: "Schools are remarkably similar in the way they relate to the achievement of their pupils when the socioeconomic background of the students is taken into account." (Emphasis added.)
Plainly put, the best predictor of a school's performance is family performance -- qualities of the families from which the students come. Subsequent research suggests that about 90 percent of the differences among the proficiency of schools can be explained by five factors: days absent from school, hours spent watching television, pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home -- and the presence of two parents in the home.