December 28, 2009
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
I've never been more sure. If we want to make a real difference in meaningfully educating our children, we must let race and ethnicity concerns go. It is high time for color-blind, income-based affirmative action.
I just had the pleasure of polishing off a big, thick novel written by my journalistic/literary hero Tom Wolfe. And my reading of his 2004 book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, coincided with a report by the policy group Public Agenda that found the main reason students drop out of college is that their academic lives are complicated -- and ultimately overburdened -- by having to work. That finding cemented in me the conviction that in today's world, problems of socioeconomic status are far more important than race and ethnicity in shaping successful lives.
I Am Charlotte Simmonstells the story of a poor, white "mountain" girl from Sparta, N.C., who, while living in a shack with a dirt floor, is prepared for college so rigorously by a singularly attentive teacher that she knocks her SATs out of the park. She lands a full-ride scholarship to one of the most exclusive and prestigious private colleges in the United States.
The story pokes a finger in the eye of one of the most common misconceptions about college life -- if you get in and have the tuition covered, you're golden -- by detailing the travails of a poor, even if brilliant, student completely ill-equipped to thrive in the university system.
In the book, Charlotte Simmons, despite being able to read many of her course materials in their original languages, might as well be a Martian on campus -- not because of the color of her skin but because of the poverty she has known her whole life.
Ultimately, Charlotte's lifelong isolation from people of different socioeconomic classes -- and a shortage of day-to-day cash -- blunts her ability to perform well academically.
In real life, having to work to pay for tuition often is only the final straw in derailing a college career. Other major disadvantages begin and need to be addressed starting in preschool.
This country must embrace socioeconomic cultural awareness by promoting income-based affirmative action to the best public and private educational facilities. Only then can children from all points on the income spectrum "see how the other half lives."
Unfortunately, our country is so focused on civil rights era notions of ethnic and racial diversity that it fails to look beyond those terms to establish a framework for adequately educating children of all income levels.
And pity the poor sap who tries. Take Ron Huberman, the Chicago Public Schools chief, who is trying to maintain racial desegregation in selective-enrollment school classrooms by basing admissions in part on five socioeconomic measures, such as family income. The courts have ruled he no longer can use race as a factor directly.
At the same time, Huberman understands that the neediest of Chicago's needy aren't uniformly black, Hispanic, Asian or white. Children of all these groups can lack the social and financial capital necessary to succeed.
But poor Huberman never knew what hit him. He immediately was attacked, lobbied and guilted by interest groups claiming his socioeconomic parity plan would infringe on the "civil rights of black children."
The simplistic fairy tale is that racial considerations above all, rather than income and social factors, are the best way to deliver a better education for all children. The reality is so much more complicated.
But it's a tough lesson, one that Charlotte Simmons learned too late: A lack of familiarity with the basic touch points of different socioeconomic classes can be just as destructive to an academic career as not studying enough for midterms.