Education is the one best hope black Americans have for a decent future. Hardly anyone would argue the point.
And yet no one seems able to focus on the matter in ways that could help.
The Senate last week passed an incredible piece of legislation limiting the power of the courts to use busing as a means of desegregating the schools. Those who claim to know say the measure cannot possibly be enacted into law, or withstand a constitutional challenge even if it is. Still, the Senate saw fit to spend months of effort and debate over this doubtful bill, which, at bottom, has virtually nothing to do with improving education.
The civil rights leadership, for all its emphasis on desegregating schools, has done very little to improve them. It has argued both broad principle (desegregation) and specific program (Title I, for instance), but has paid dismayingly little attention to the impact of either principle or program on the education of black children.
I don't mean to say that the civil rights establishment and last week's Senate action are on a par. The civil rights leadership has at least been principled. The Senate vote was calculatingly unprincipled and racist.
Meanwhile, we are turning out yet another generation of ill-educated children, children who will grow up to be essentially useless in a technological society. The question that ought to be the focus of our attention--in the Senate, in the black community and in the nation--is what to do about it.
We might begin by agreeing on a few basics:
* The major educational problem facing America may have less to do with color than with poverty. Middle-class black children tend to do reasonably well, whether their schools are predominantly black or predominantly white. The problem is the education of poor children--the term "poor" embracing not just inadequate income but also inadequate motivation, an inadequate sense of the impact of learning on their future and inadequate parental support.
* Nothing can be done to improve the education of these children without spending money. But spending money is not enough.
* Some schools do manage to do a first-rate job of educating poor children. Wouldn't it make sense to spend some of the money in an effort to learn how these schools do it?
We have spent far too much of our meager resources pursuing the erroneous theory that if we can get black children into integrated schools, their education will take care of itself. Isn't it time to abandon that obviously false notion?
Significant improvements in the academic performance of black children might go a long way toward facilitating racial integration. It seems obvious that well-educated blacks have less problem with integration than do their poorly educated counterparts.
This is no argument for resegregating the schools. Indeed, the worst thing about the recent Senate action is that it has the effect of condoning segregation: cold, deliberate segregation. To say that the courts may not use busing as a way of undoing state-induced segregation comes close to saying that segregation, however unlawful, will go uncorrected.
But not quite. Even if the Senate measure is adopted by the House and signed into law, the hands of the courts won't be completely tied. There are other ways of handling the problem of equity. For instance, the courts might order school districts to provide financial compensation for unlawful segregation. A bonus of, say, an additional 50 percent in per-pupil outlays might make the school districts think twice about resegregating the schools.
And if it didn't, that extra money might be used to do more for the education of black children than the most prodigious busing scheme.