Schools must give all students a chance to succeed

August 04, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- You do not often hear about students who sue their school board because their schoolwork is not difficult enough.

But it is happening in a place where the strange is not so unusual -- Los Angeles.

Our gratitude in this case goes to the American Civil Liberties Union. Its Southern California chapter filed the class-action suit on behalf of four Inglewood High School students against the state Department of Education and the Inglewood Unified School District.

They charge that tens of thousands of black and Latino high school students are denied equal access to UCLA or the University of California-Berkeley, California's most coveted and prestigious public universities, because their schools do not offer as many advanced placement or AP courses as schools with mostly white students do.

I wish these students and their lawyers good luck. I also wonder what took them so long.

There's nothing new about students from lower-income districts getting short-changed compared with kids from more affluent districts.

Unequal access

In California's case, the gap between AP classes in rich and poor schools amounts to a severe gap in the ability of students in poverty or near-poverty to climb out of it.

AP classes allow outstanding students a chance to earn college credits. An "A," worth 4 points in a normal or honors class, is worth 5 points in an AP class. In California, AP classes weight heavily in favor of students trying to enroll at the state's two most sought-after universities.

The rich, famous and mostly white Beverly Hills High School offers 14 AP courses, including six in science and math, the lawsuit points out, while less-well-off Inglewood High School offers only three AP courses, none of them in science or math.

This is typical of schools that serve mostly black and Latino students, the suit argues. Yet, there are many bright straight-A students like the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit who would be eager to take such courses, if they were offered.

AP classes have been around since the College Board created them in 1955. Why is the opportunity gap only being challenged now? Credit Proposition 209, the controversial referendum that ended race-based affirmative action in admissions to the state's university system.

A matter of class

When Prop 209 removed race as a criterion for educational opportunity, it put a new spotlight on the many factors, besides race, that hold students back. It also created new pressures on both the defenders and the opponents of Prop 209 to find new ways to remedy the many educational inequalities that are based not on race, but on economic class.

For years affirmative action opponents have been saying they want to remove "racial preferences" and restore "true equal opportunity." If so, now is the time to put taxpayers' money where their mouths are.

Ward Connerly, the black University of California regent who led the Proposition 209 fight, could not help but agree. "Many of these schools do not offer AP courses because they feel the students wouldn't take them and succeed academically," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Yes, it does. Although I opposed Proposition 209 (affirmative action, as I and many others experienced it, has done a lot more good than harm), I also oppose the way affirmative action too often is used as a cheap and easy way to throw a token benefit to racial minorities without addressing more serious inequalities of opportunity.

With that in mind, it's time we Americans renewed our commitment to provide all of our children with at least the same opportunity to succeed academically. We can't afford not to.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/04/99

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