Good Intentions are Not Enough
The Peril Posed by Minnesota's New Desegregation Plan
Reports & Books
For years, Minnesota policy makers have assumed that the best way to improve minority students’ academic performance is to pour resources into busing them across town, so that they can learn next to white children in a “racially balanced” environment. The social science theory underlying this view is called the “harm-benefit thesis.” Influential since the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, the harm-benefit thesis holds that education in predominantly minority schools harms the academic, social and psychological development of minority children. Conversely, education in the company of white children is thought to benefit minority children in many important ways.
After a 20-year trial, however, it is clear that policies inspired by the harm-benefit thesis have failed to achieve their objectives. Black students are not doing significantly better on standardized tests than they were when busing started; indeed, their test scores have fallen in the last few years, at least in Minneapolis. Moreover, recent data suggest that the academic progress of black students in Minneapolis is only weakly related to the racial composition of the schools they attend.
Minnesotans must call for a fresh approach to our urban education crisis, which grows perpetually more serious. A new plan should draw on the experience and insights gained over the last two decades, both in the Twin Cities and elsewhere around the country. At the very least, we must insist that the State has the benefit of advice from legal and social science experts who can explain the long-term consequences of the SBE’s course, and suggest superior alternatives.
Sadly, the proposed rules—so prescriptive and so costly—may just create a comforting illusion that we are “doing something” about the urban education crisis. Most likely, they will make policy makers feel good: “Now, no one can say we don’t care.” Ironically, however, if these rules are adopted, among the biggest losers may be the poor minority children we aim to help, who will have lost yet another chance at an improved education.