A Better Third Way
Taking universalism seriously, New Liberals would also offer fresh approaches in contentious areas that have fractured the progressive coalition, sundering blacks from whites and organized from unorganized workers. For example, New Liberals would seek to apply civil rights principles to poor and working-class people of all races in at least three areas: affirmative action, school desegregation and union organizing.
First, affirmative action should be redefined to provide a leg up to economically disadvantaged people of all races. In the legal and political warfare over affirmative action in university admissions and elsewhere, Old Liberals emphasize ends (we don't want universities and the professional work force to be all white), while New Democrats and conservatives emphasize means (we don't want skin color to determine who gets ahead in society). New Liberals seek to reconcile fair means and desirable ends by providing a leg up based on disadvantage itself, looking at economic status directly rather than race as a crude proxy. When conservative critics of affirmative action ask why it is fair for Vernon Jordan's kids to get a preference over the daughter of a white welfare mother, they unwittingly underline a profoundly progressive message: Class matters. Rather than awarding points on the basis of race, or simply judging candidates on test scores and grades, class-based affirmative action seeks to evaluate a candidate's record in light of obstacles overcome, as a better measure of true merit and potential.
Because class-based affirmative action is fundamentally fair, polls find that it is much more popular than the race-based system. For example, in a December 1997 New York Times/CBS poll Americans rejected racial preferences 52-35 percent but favored replacing such policies with preferences for the poor 53-37 percent. Moreover, where race-based preferences divide the interests of working-class whites and blacks in an unmistakable way, class-based preferences unite these groups in a way that will immeasurably enhance the fight for a fairer society in other areas.
Second, school integration should be redefined with a focus on economic status, so that every child in America has the right to choose to attend a middle-class public school. Today the courts have eviscerated the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, and even voluntary racial integration plans are being struck down. Old Liberals and some New Democrats have been reduced to good but small education ideas--school uniforms, reduced class size, etc.--none of which address the fountainhead of school inequality: the inevitable difference in quality between poor and wealthy schools. Meanwhile, the right and some other New Democrats have pushed a scheme for privatizing education that most careful observers believe will further segregate the schools, by class and race, since the "choice" that conservatives talk about ultimately rests with private schools rather than with students.
It's time for a big idea in education, in which all American children are given the right to attend a public school in which the majority of students come from middle-class households. Ironically, conservative voucher advocates, by emphasizing the basic unfairness of assigning poor kids to bad local schools, have implicitly recognized that neighborhood schools can be a source of great unfairness for poor people. Instead of giving poor kids vouchers to unaccountable private schools, poor children should, in this middle-class country, be given the right to choose to attend middle-class public schools. Marrying two popular American ideas, choice and public education, economic school integration can help make good on our longstanding promise that public education should be an engine for social mobility.
How can economic school integration be achieved? Busing is a nonstarter. Far better is a mechanism known as "controlled choice," devised by Charles Willie of Harvard and Michael Alves of Brown. Parents in a given community are polled to find out what sort of school themes and pedagogical approaches they find attractive for their children (for example, a computer science theme in one school or a Montessori approach in another). All schools in the area are magnetized to reflect the community's interests, and families are given an opportunity to rank preferences among the various public school offerings. Officials then honor choices with an eye to promoting integration.
In places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Montclair, New Jersey, controlled choice has long been used to balance racial populations, but the structure can easily be used to balance schools by income as well, using eligibility for subsidized school lunches as a measure. This new emphasis on students' economic status--favored by communities like La Crosse, Wisconsin, Manchester, Connecticut, and Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina--is at the cutting edge of school integration. It offers a way to address the separation of poor and middle-class children and will indirectly promote racial integration in a manner that's perfectly legal. Economic integration is easiest to implement within school district lines, but city-suburban transfer programs in Hartford, Boston, St. Louis and elsewhere provide models for interdistrict integration.