Fairness and Education

San Diego school board members continue to try to grind out a policy on equity in student placement, but progress is coming at a snail's pace.

Equity in student placement, simply put, means seeking increased fairness in placing students in courses and classes.

Last Tuesday, for the second meeting in a row, board members haggled over the definitions of commonly used words but resolved little.

Board members Susan Davis and Dorothy Smith each came to the meeting with new draft language that advanced Supt. Thomas W. Payzant's equity proposal while dealing with the concerns of more conservative board members, Larry Lester and Kay Davis.

But Lester seemed more intent on filibustering than compromising. After much rancor, a loose consensus was reached to define equity in student placement as "equal access (Lester would have preferred 'opportunity') to the highest degree of quality education for all students. Entrance to courses is based on meeting established criteria for enrollment."

That eminently reasonable goal still must be voted on--and possibly debated again--because Kay Davis was absent.

Yet to come is more debate on the critical element of racially balancing classes.

Payzant proposes that classes be balanced within plus or minus 20% of the racial makeup of the school, a figure drawn from an agreement the district has with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and from the desegregation lawsuit.

This was the topic of bitter quarreling between Lester and Smith last week. Lester wants to assure that in no case will a better student be denied enrollment in a class so that a less successful, though qualified, student can be admitted to satisfy a goal of racial mixing.

Smith's concern is that all students who meet the requisite criteria for a class be allowed to take it, or that, if some selection is necessary, it not be based strictly on past performance.

Smith's approach seems the fairer.

Lester has a mistaken view that society is always best served by seeing the top students pushed to excel, even at the expense of others. In fact, society is equally well-served when a B student is given the opportunity and encouragement to pull himself up to an A, or when a student who might take consumer math decides to tackle algebra.

At some point, race may play a role in which youngsters are placed in which classes. We agree with Payzant that we can never completely overcome the paradox that "in order to be color blind you have to have some sense of color."

No one wants to see an A student not be allowed into a certain class so that a B student of another race can be. Yet that is preferable to having minority students discouraged from taking more-challenging courses, as has happened in the past.

Ethnically balancing classes to within 20% is not excessive. A student body 60% white, would be allowed classes from 40% to 80% white.

This is an imperfect system, but better than the too-common practice of consigning minority students to lower academic "tracks" while routinely placing whites in courses that prepare them for college.

We hope future board meetings will not see the personal bickering Smith and Lester descended to last week. It is time for the board members to calmly face their responsibility and make necessary changes so that obtaining a quality education depends on a student's drive and ability, not his or her color.

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