NAACP Tries to Kill the Golden Goose

The last 75 years have seen remarkable civil rights progress.  As Jesse Jackson would put it, African-Americans have gone from the outhouse to the White House.  Foremost in this campaign has been the NAACP (and its closely aligned Legal Defense Fund).  Cataloging this progress might fill an entire library.

But, successes acknowledged, like all successful, long-lived organizations, the NAACP faces what is sometimes called the March of Dimes problem (the March of Dimes once fought polio).  In a nutshell, what's an organization to do after it has accomplished nearly all of its goals?  (The March of Dimes turned to birth defects after helping conquer polio.)

This is hardly easy, and finding a new cause to energize the troops and sustain donations can, alas, lead to ill-advised quests.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what now transpires in New York City, where the NAACP (along with multiple other civil rights organizations) has filed a complained with the U.S. Department of Education claiming that the two-and-half-hour multiple choice exams for two of the city's academically elite schools violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act since blacks and Hispanics are admitted far below their proportion in the city (two-thirds of the admitted students are Asian).

Here are the facts.  As in all cities, New York City high schools range in academic rigor.  Eight high schools limit their enrollments to the very top, and two, Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, admit students solely on tests measuring verbal and mathematical skills.  Critically, the exclusive use of these tough tests is legally protected by a 1971 state law, so everything else, from grades to letters of recommendation, counts for naught (the other elite schools have more leeway).

The City once tried to make these schools more racially and ethnically diverse while still upholding the law by establishing a pre-high school program limited to blacks and Hispanics.  This program was ruled unconstitutional.  In the 2012-13 school year, for example, only two percent of the 967 students offered admission to Stuyvesant were African-American.

So, what does the NAACP argue?  These tests, it is claimed, are racially discriminatory despite the veneer of objectivity.  In their words, the tests are "unjustified, [and have a] racially disparate impact."  Moreover, it is asserted that these tests have never been shown to predict a student's academic potential even though many of these schools' graduates go on to distinguished careers (Attorney General Eric Holder is one such graduate).  The complaint further adds that diversity suffers from an overwhelmingly white and Asian student body.

Is the NAACP still advancing the African-American civil rights agenda?  A little thought will demonstrate the opposite -- if successful, this complaint will make matters worse, especially for poor blacks and Hispanics.  Consider the opportunity costs, all the lawyer fees and data-collection -- money that could be better-spent on tutoring smart kids within hailing distance of passing the test.  Less obvious, but perhaps of greater long-term consequence, is the tactic of beseeching unelected Washington bureaucrats to reverse laws enacted by a democratically elected state legislature.  Surely if the NAACP's argument is as strong as claimed, they should lobby the state legislature in Albany, where the policy can be openly debated.  After all, this is far more democratic than seeking a Washington bureaucrat's fatwa.  And what if new, less sympathetic bureaucrats come into power if Romney wins?  Is this any way to run education?

But ultimately of greater consequence is what can happen to the city when top academically oriented high schools are subverted by racial quotas.  Clearly, despite all the rhetoric about academically talented blacks and Hispanics being deprived of an important pathway to success, the academic quality of Bronx Science and Stuyvesant will suffer, and, of the utmost importance, those now admitted thanks to quotas will not substantially benefit.  It is bizarre to insist that youngsters who struggle with intermediate calculus will suddenly get smarter if put in a classroom with those anxious to move on to advanced calculus.  This is learning by osmosis.  If anything, stereotypes about blacks and Hispanics being challenged by tough academics will only be strengthened.  These newly diversified schools may also have to sacrifice advanced instruction in favor of remedial courses to boost black and Hispanic graduation rates.

Now consider the parents of those top-scoring students who just miss out being admitted to Bronx Science or Stuyvesant.  Many are recent poor Asian and Russian immigrants who depend on free public schools to advance up the economic ladder, and few can pay the sky-high tuition of the city's top private schools (typically $30,000 a year or more).  Nor can they afford to move to the wealthy suburbs that typically offer public education on a par with what Bronx Science or Stuyvesant offers.

The most likely scenario will be a boom in after-school tutoring (including free online instruction from such places as MIT), and when it comes time to take the SATs, nothing real will change.  At most, local high schools serving these students who would have otherwise attended the elite schools will improve.  Nevertheless, the familiar pattern of Asians (and whites) out-scoring blacks and Hispanics would remain unchanged.  The only upside is that the newly admitted blacks and Hispanics could claim to have attended an academically rigorous high school, but, guaranteed, they would be asked when they graduated, and this newfound prestige might then be discounted if they entered post-racial quotas (which means that those blacks and Hispanics who would have been admitted under the old system would be the big losers).  In brief, blacks and Hispanics will have gained very little academically.  (A similar academic disaster occurred in 1970, when open admissions were tried at the City's top universities.)

The damage gets worse.  Top public schools are always a magnet for smart immigrants, who energize a city's economy.   This has little to do with race or ethnicity.  Every year, thousands of Caribbean and African blacks flock to New York City to take advantage of quality free education, and if the quality declines, they may go elsewhere.  It is hardly an accident that Holder's immigrant family chose New York City versus, say, Detroit. 

All in all, killing off top education -- even if the casualties are only a few thousand -- can have dire economic consequences for those who depend on an economically healthy city, and here's the bottom line: this disproportionally hurts poor blacks and Hispanics.  New York City currently thrives financially, and the resultant tax revenue means more municipal jobs, better-funded education and social services, and a vibrant private job-creating-sector economy.

Want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?  Kill off quality public education.  And this is exactly what the NAACP is attempting to accomplish.  They should find a more promising cause.