Some say U.S. race relations are improving; others say not. Some say that affirmative action has fostered racial progress; others say not. But almost all Americans, liberal or conservative, agree that in the long run racial equality can be fully achieved only by eliminating disparities in the average educational performances of blacks and whites. Most Americans, we submit, would go so far as to say that if the next generation of blacks and whites acquire similar academic skills, the remaining barriers to racial equality could well slip away of their own accord.
But despite the broad consensus for education's central importance, the United States tolerates the isolation of half of its African-American children in public school within an unsafe and severely underperforming system. Any serious attempt to eliminate racial inequities must correct this glaring blot on the nation's racial report card.
Half of all African Americans, but only 20 percent of whites, in public school attend central-city schools. In the largest U.S. cities, the racial differences between central-city and suburban schools are even more dramatic. In Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, more than 85 percent of public school students are of minority background.
Unfortunately, it is in these big cities that public schools fall their students most miserably and the costs of failure are most severe. According to a national survey carried out in 1996, only 46 percent of urban students read at a "basic" level, as compared with 63 percent of students in nonurban areas. Among high-poverty schools, the differences are even greater. Only 23 percent of students at urban high-poverty schools read at the basic level as compared with 46 percent in nonurban high-poverty areas. Similar performances for urban schools were reported in math and science. As columnist William Raspberry recently put it in the Washington Post, "Poor children desperately need better education. Yet the schools they attend--particularly in America's overwhelmingly black and brown inner cities--may be the least successful of all public schools."
In most big cities, average test scores fall as students advance through the public schools. For example, early last year a New York Times article matched New York City students against statewide averages, controlling for students' racial and income status. It found that they scored 3 percentile points behind the statewide average in third grade, 6 percentile points behind in sixth grade, and as much as 15 points behind in high school.
According to Department of Education statistics, the share of all students who go to private schools is much higher in big cities (15.8 percent) than in either suburban (11.7 percent) or rural areas (5.4 percent). Lacking the resources to follow suit, low-income central-city families often find themselves forced to accept the school to which their child is assigned, leaving many dissatisfied. A New York Times article reported last December, for example, that 93 percent of blacks in Denver agreed that "some children in the Denver public school system are receiving a substandard education."
As evidence of urban school failure piles up, Urban League President Hugh Price has put big-city schools on notice: "If urban schools ... continue to fail in the face of all we know about how to improve them, then [parents] will be obliged to shop elsewhere for quality education. We Urban Leaguers believe passionately in public education. But make no mistake. We love our children even more."
FLOCKING TO VOUCHERS
Fed up with central-city schools, many African Americans are beginning to throw their support behind school vouchers. When Stanford professor Terry Moe recently conducted a nationwide survey of 4,700 parents, he found that school choice commands the greatest support in central cities: 79 percent of the inner-city poor …