EVER SINCE the Coleman Report, "Equality of Educational Opportunity," was issued in 1966, it has been treated as some massive religious text, like the Talmud or Koran, to which anyone with a predisposition toward any opinion may turn for confirmation and solace. The Coleman Report was mandated by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, the feelings attached to its various findings and implications have run both high and long, extending to the matters of "white flight" and busing and all the other necessarily troubling consequences of an act that remains, for all its difficulties, one of the best and most important things this country has ever done.
Now James S. Coleman has recanted one of his original findings, and his recantation runs the risk of either being taken wrong or taken too seriously. In a paper he delivered last April and in a recent Post interview, Mr. Coleman discounted his initial belief that the scholastic performances of black schoolchildren from poor backgrounds would improve if the children went to schools attended by middle-class whites. That view he now regards as "incorrect . . . wishful thinking." And so it is made to seem that a major rationale of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has lost its underpinnings.
We really don't want to get into the Coleman Report here, because many of those who have done so never have gotten out. But it's worthwhile making two observations about Mr. Coleman's recantation, and about all past and future decisions and revisions that such a report is bound to spawn. The first is a simple matter of fact that in the original report the percentage of grade improvement noted among poor blacks attending middle-class white schools was terribly small. In short, Mr. Coleman did not have that much to recant.
The second is that, in terms of the Civil Rights Act and the whole effort to desegregate the schools, his recantation is beside the point. That act was not passed and those court decisions were not made in order to raise the grades of black schoolchildren. The worth of the postwar desegregation effort depends on no such rationale. In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wasn't even meant to effect racial balance, and it specifically says so. It was meant to put an end to official, formal discrimination in the institutions of American life. That fortunately, for the most part it has done.