There are two educational programs designed to help minority students succeed. One benefits only a small number of minority students, mostly upper middle class, by shifting them from attending good universities to great universities. The other would benefit a vastly larger number of minority students by shifting them from very bad K-12 schools to good and sometimes great K-12 schools.

If you could only support one of these policies, which would you choose?

I’m talking, of course, about affirmative action and school choice. Strictly speaking, the two policies are not in conflict. One could support both without contradiction. But in practice, most people do favor only one or the other.

Affirmative action was originally viewed as a way to make up for past discrimination, and so was created with a conceptual end-point. Having a clear purpose that could be definitely achieved was important, because affirmative action required explicit racial favoritism, which violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. But the past discrimination had also involved unconstitutional racial favoritism, so a temporary suspension of racial neutrality to correct that past violation was deemed acceptable.

For example, an all-white fire department that had historically discriminated against black applicants could practice affirmative action until it had an appropriate proportion of black firemen. It could then end affirmative action and simply be race-neutral in the future because blacks and whites are equally likely to make good firemen. 

Similarly, colleges and universities that had explicitly discriminated against minorities could use affirmative action to catch up to appropriate proportions of students of different races, but then should be race-neutral from then on. But an uncomfortable thing happened on the way to that bright future. As elite universities were forced by legal rulings or citizen intiatives to consider applicants on a race-neutral basis, minority enrollment fell, specifically among African Americans and Latinos. As it turned out, unlike with firefighters, not all ethnic groups equally met the stringent requirements to get into elite universities. Whatever the reason for that, some elite universities had to find ways to continue affirmative action to maintain their desired level of African American and Latino enrollment.

Non-elite schools didn’t have this problem because their standards for entry were not as stringent. The great majority of colleges in the country don’t use affirmative action, and many–including many liberal arts colleges and community colleges–are essentially open enrollment. So it’s not access to college that affirmative action provides; only access to elite schools.

Of course many African American and Latino admits to elite schools didn’t need the affirmative action bump to get in. They were excellent enough to pass those schools’ high academic bar without any race-based bonus. So only a portion of minority students at elite schools got in because of affirmative action. But obviously those students were also academically strong, or they would not have even been considered for the affirmative action bump. This means they would have gotten into some other good school, perhaps just below the elite level, where they could still have gotten a good education and had excellent career prospects.

So affirmative action has evolved into a very limited program that helps a relatively small number of already high-achieving, and probably mostly upper-middle class, minorities get into elite schools instead of near-elite schools. Maybe that’s worth fighting for. It’s not entirely implausible to argue that the elite who actually dominate our country, whatever our paeans to democracy might suggest to the contrary, should at least reflect the various types of diversity of America. But it seems rather limited in scope for a supposed effort to achieve greater social justice. 

In contrast, school choice targets a vastly larger set of minority students, and it targets specifically those students who are in the lower middle to lower class, stuck in failing urban public schools, and consequently the most educationally disadvantaged. 

Whatever the reason for the poor performance of public schools, the evidence is clear that charter and private schools outperform them (generally at lower cost), boosting low-income minority students’ academic attainment, increasing their likelihood of attending college, and reducing their likelihood of ending up in prison. It may even improve performance among students who remain in the public schools.

That definitely seems worth fighting for, and it seems worth a greater expenditure of energy than helping a handful of near elites become elites. And yet the same group that provides most of the fervent defenders of affirmative action also provides most of the staunch opponents of school choice.

Notably, the opposition does not come from parents of minority students themselves. Most charter schools are oversubscribed, and when poor parents get the opportunity to direct their children’s tax-tuition dollars towards private schools, emulating the well-to-do, they eagerly do so. That suggests the opposition to school choice is mostly coming from those who already have more socio-economic success than the kids school choice is intended to help.

In short, the relatively well-off are arguing for extra help for others who are relatively well-off while obstructing help for those who are less well-off.

This is deeply ironic, especially as those same people tend to identify institutional racism as an on-going problem. Much of the support for affirmative action, for example, seems to be based on the assumption that in some way that’s hard to directly identify, institutional racism could be the reason why a black stockbroker’s very smart daughter falls just short of qualifying directly for Harvard. But there are few more visible and clearly identifiable examples of institutional racism than the urban public school system. Because public schools are territorially based, and better neighborhoods have better schools (whatever the reasons may be), poorer minority children are selectively funneled into the country’s worst schools so that they face the highest barriers to educational achievement and future socio-economic gains. 

As noted above, there’s no logical contradiction in supporting both affirmative action and school choice. But there’s little evidence that many people actually do. If the norm is that we must choose just one of them to support, does it really make sense to put our energy behind the policy that helps those who are already doing well or behind the policy that helps those most in need of our help?