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Comment: Don't rely only on Head Start,
Underfunded program cannot end need for affirmative action

By Paula Allen-Meares, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Social Work

Detroit Free Press
November 5, 2003

"We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

So wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in upholding moderate version of affirmative action at the University of Michigan in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of our generation on race.

She made it seem so simple. In a mere 25 years, American children will send in test scores, essays and applications, and those admitted will somehow represent all races and economic levels. If only it were that easy.

A half-century ago, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the notion that separate could be equal. A quarter-century after that, the Bakke case affirmed the spirit of what became affirmative action. What the U-M case shows is that it has taken 50 years to get us to a point where the author of its majority opinion "expects" it will take only one more generation to arrive at equality.

To me as an African American, that seems like a long time. To me as a scholar, it seems an enormous over-simplification.

Opinions differ about how to make affirmative action unnecessary, but O'Connor's idea that a revved-up Head Start will "balance" the racial scales in our schools, while helpful, is something far more frail than the sort of engine capable of changing our world by 2028.

Head Start cannot be a magic panacea for what ails society because of how such programs work. Less than half of the eligible children and families are actually served -- in part because of ongoing budget cuts. Head Start itself is up for reauthorization this year. Congress supports moving control to the states, many of which are cutting early childhood programs to staunch the flow of red ink in their budget deficits.

Other changes to the Head Start program before Congress include a shift from vital childhood socialization and health care to measurable aspects of learning, which then enables funding to be linked to measurable performance. Teacher requirements will become more stringent, calling for ongoing training.

In theory, this seems like a good idea, except that the money it costs will eat still further into benefits actually reaching kids. Even with Justice O'Connor's hoped-for enrichment, Head Start would still reach only a modest fraction of the children who need it. Furthermore, what possible good can come from a stronger Head Start program if children are then sent on to schools that are racially and, perhaps more important, economically segregated?

While the Brown decision was based on racial segregation, a related economic factor may not have weighed as heavily on that court. In 1971, Swann v. Board of Education brought desegregation and busing into the national consciousness. Thirty years later, there is a movement back to "neighborhood" schools, which with the growth of suburbia often means affluent, and quite often, white, leaving inner city schools not only segregated, but lacking adequate tax base.

Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, in "Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality," conclude that racism in education is not the only barrier minorities face in their quest for equality. If accumulating wealth and, more significantly, passing it from one generation to the next is the epitome of American success, then African Americans in particular do not have a clear path to success for a variety of factors.

It is race at all levels of society that hinders minorities. There is something silent and unspoken about racism, something imbedded but visible just beneath the American surface.

When children must study in gang infested neighborhoods, when minorities make up the majority of prisoners, when merely being a minority with a car invites police scrutiny, what good does wealth do? How can a child possibly hope to make it out of a bad neighborhood and end the cycle of poverty, abuse or other horrors while his neighborhood offers him no hope?

Funding Head Start is a wonderful starting point, but until we can sustain that Head Start with more education, more opportunity and more support, we are merely throwing away good money.

Justice O'Connor -- a woman, wife, mother, citizen -- has herself benefited from the affirmative action movement. It helped her to become the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. She knows what it feels like to have the knowledge, the education, the opportunity, and yet still find walls everywhere you turn. And I thank her for her help. But for affirmative action to become unnecessary, we need major social and economic action.

It may not happen in 25 years, but by encouraging minority students to achieve what they never thought possible -- from Head Start through the best institutions in America -- the beneficiaries will include countless kids who without help will fail at great loss to all of us.

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