Schools to mirror real world

May 01, 2000|By Jim Sollisch

IN 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court concluded that separate education facilities were inherently unequal. The ruling reflected the court's belief that educating children of different races together was the best way to bridge the terrible divide of race in our country.

Thus began America's experiment with forced school integration. Well, the experiment ended recently when the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that school officials in Montgomery County, Md., violated the Constitution by preventing a white student from transferring to a magnet school from his predominantly black neighborhood school.

His transfer would further tip the racial imbalance in his school, the officials argued. The Supreme Court decided that the need for racial balance does not outweigh the importance of individual choice.

Today, the odds are only 1 in 3 that a black child in America goes to school with whites. I suspect the percentage of white children going to school with more than a few blacks is even lower.

That makes my white children a statistical anomaly. They go to public schools with a 65 percent black population in Cleveland Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland with a population that is 65 percent white. My children are the beneficiaries, not of forced integration, but of a voluntary parental order. I want them to go to a school in a real neighborhood with people who are not just diverse in race but in religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and ideas.

Of course, many of my white neighbors disagree. They'll tell you they pulled their kids out of our schools because our district scores lower than the state average on proficiency tests. Of course, their kids' scores were always well above average. They'll also tell you that their kids weren't challenged, even though our district offers academic tracking that includes a full Advanced Placement program in the high school. And they'll tell you they just want to give their kids any advantage they can. Well, so do I. Which is why I send my kids to an integrated school with below-average proficiency scores. My children go to school in a place called the future. And I'm not talking about the Internet, even though our schools are fully on-line. I'm talking about the fact that during our children's prime working years, Americans of European descent will become a statistical minority. My children will be prepared. They already know how to negotiate in the currency of many cultures. My kids are street-smart.

They see below surfaces. They will have no problem adapting to a performance-based work world. The companies that will thrive in the future will be less concerned with GPAs and where you went to school than with what you can do. Street smarts are already paying big dividends in the dot-com world, where ideas are more interesting than resumes.

I went to a meeting recently where admissions officers from Ivy League schools spoke. They all said that when they get two kids with fairly equal academic backgrounds, one from a private school and one from a school district like ours, they pick our kid. They believe our kid will handle the social pressures better. Of course, my neighbors will go right back to their original argument -- that my kids won't be able to achieve equal academic status with private school kids because my kids will be dragged down by students who don't do as well.

As long as there are advanced classes and rigorous education opportunities, my kids can excel.

So the Supreme Court has spoken again. It will not promote diversity at the cost of individual choice. Fine. Forced school integration didn't work anyway.

But there's nothing stopping those of us in cities and inner- ring suburbs with viable school systems from exercising our freedom of choice. We can choose to stop running from our neighborhood schools and make them better.

That can be our school choice. And we won't need vouchers.

Jim Sollisch is a commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

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