Acton Commentary

Merit-based Standards in Education: Not for Whites Only


On August 28th, the nation marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. In it, Dr. King comments: “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only.’” Unfortunately, 40 years later, the Supreme Court again has institutionalized the second-class citizenship of African Americans with a strange twist on the old segregationist policy of reserving some privileges for “whites only.” Only, this time around, the court seems to be saying that high standards in education are permissible only for white people.

The University of Michigan affirmed this as it released new admissions policies on the anniversary of King’s speech. The scant attention paid to what these policies say about the inherent dignity of minorities and the weaknesses in the applicant pool leaves many issues unresolved.

Simply stated, the argument for such policies rests on the unarticulated assumption that blacks and Hispanics cannot compete with whites on an equal playing field. Colleges and universities now have a two-tiered admissions process: one based on performance and human potentiality and the other based on presupposed inferiority. In contrast, the Christian tradition — which holds that all women and men are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) — opposes the idea that race and class make some inferior.

The image of God implies that every person has worth and potentialities. Being made in God’s image reveals that people have the capacity and desire to think, make choices, be creative, cultivate, work, build families, develop communities, and so on. A truly compassionate approach to injustice concerns itself with remedies that best provide for the full exercise and expression of human potentiality. The Book of Common Prayer has a wonderful line thanking God for “setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.”

Unfortunately, we now have a system in which race substitutes for the demands of one’s best efforts. Minorities are robbed of the delight and satisfaction of accomplishments achieved without preferential treatment because colleges and universities do not really expect that these kids can succeed on their own merit. Instead, state-sanctioned racial discrimination continues to strip and rob minorities of their dignity. The incentive to work hard and take personal responsibility for one’s performance is reserved for some and not others. Suspicion and stigma now accompany genuine achievement.

Ultimately, the critical issue is the quality of the applicant pool available for colleges and universities to draw from. The current applicant pool is fed by systems and processes that produce both well equipped students and some others that are competitively handicapped — irrespective of race and income. Good schools have incentives to remain such and poor schools have no incentive to make radical changes.

Parents aware of the problem are seeking options. Those who can afford it move to better school districts, home school, or seek private education. However, for many parents, options are constrained by third parties — such as the National Education Association (NEA) and its efforts to monopolize and usurp parental choice. As a power monopoly, the NEA has no interest in giving low-income parents the same type of choices that many NEA members themselves exercise with their own children. The NEA concerns itself with how parental choice programs “compete with funds” for state run schools. This insulting lobbying effort ignores the fact that low-income parents want quality education with proven results.

Low-income children shackled to failing schools must be emancipated. Granting the freedom to choose better schools is one step toward improving the future applicant pool for our colleges and universities. Just because some parents are low-income does not mean they do not know what is best for their children. Low-income parents, as God’s image bearers, deserve the dignity, respect, freedom, and power to make choices about where their children will be educated. Do we not want all Americans to enjoy the same freedoms, or is educational choice to be exercised by “whites only” (or, more precisely, by high-income Americans only)?

Every year we see the results of a primary and secondary education process in need of repair as colleges artificially manipulate the results of a system that currently exists, to create the impression of a system that we all wish existed. This approach will never succeed. A system that constrains human potential with mediocre standards, racial discrimination, no accountability, and inhibited parental choice, forces colleges to resort to a dehumanizing two-tiered admissions process.

If the results of our education system are undesirable, maybe radical changes in the system are necessary. We need a primary and secondary education process that produces a multi-racial critical mass of well-educated students who have been challenged to give their best efforts. We need a process that produces an ethnically diverse body of students unlocking human potentiality. We need a process by which all students are equally given a chance to seek how God has and has not gifted them. We need a process that allows people to experience the blessing of failure. We need a process by which hard work is rewarded for all and not penalized for some. We need a process in which all parents are free from surrogate education decision makers. Finally, we need a process whereby no child is stripped and robbed of dignity by a system that demands high standards for “whites only.”