Skip to main content

Columnists Remarkable Providences

Exit strategy

Exit strategy

Better schools can help us transcend racial preferences

Today my oldest son and several thousand other students graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. Pete has worked very hard, and he's also had three visible advantages: the Bible, two parents, Christian schools. How should we be kind to potential college students who don't have those helps?

The official way to help has a public-relations name that's now notorious: "affirmative action." It treats students from racial and ethnic minorities as if none of them had any advantages. It treats white kids as if they all did. That's nuts, but anyone who says so encounters harsh criticism.

My university's controversy-of-the-year came earlier this term when Ward Connerly, a black conservative who two years ago led a successful California drive against affirmative action, came to speak. Try to, that is: Demonstrators with sneering faces and snarling language hooted and hollered so much that he ended up doing only a few minutes of Q&A.

Even that was instructive, however. Many questioners asked what would happen to poor black and Hispanic students if affirmative action disappeared. Mr. Connerly talked about improving pre-college schooling for minority members, yet his assertions that good schooling would make racial preferences unnecessary were met by disbelief.

We need an exit strategy for America concerning Kosovo, but also one for affirmative action: Opposing it on principle is not good if in practice there's no alternative for minority kids. Providentially, I found an alternative this spring when my 14-year-old son Daniel and I drove over to Houston and visited a remarkable school called the KIPP ("knowledge is power program") Academy.

The 275 middle-school students enrolled at KIPP arrive at 7:25 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. on weekdays. They also come to school on Saturday morning, living by the motto on KIPP's walls: "There are no shortcuts." The students-95 percent black or Hispanic-come to school for half the summer, knifing through Houston heat and their own desire for vacation.

These are not the best and the brightest when they enter KIPP in the fifth grade. They are from neighborhoods filled with illiteracy, drug abuse, broken homes, gangs, teenage pregnancy, juvenile crime, and poverty. Almost all are poor, qualifying for the federal free breakfast and lunch program. Almost half in the fourth grade failed a basic test of reading and math skills.

But when they enter a culture that emphasizes learning and hard work, their world changes. Fifth graders in one of the classes we visited were chanting "Gotta read, baby, read! Gotta read, baby, read," and "Knowledge is power, power is money, I want some." They have learned that education is their ticket out of poverty. Without a moment's hesitation they can state the year they are planning to enter college.

Students sign a "Commitment to Excellence" form pledging diligence in attendance and homework. Parents agree to look over homework and push their children. Teachers sign the form also, pledging to be at the school during all the extra hours and to be available for evening consultations by phone.

The change from the culture of barely getting by to a culture of excellence makes a huge difference. A seventh-grade math class we sat in on is studying the same material as Daniel's eighth-grade class at a good Christian school. Students in an eighth-grade English class were discussing a poem not by giving their "feelings" about it, but by analyzing carefully its meter and metaphors.

A few KIPP students leave, unwilling to exchange immediate gratification for long-term satisfaction. But those who stick with the program are, after two years, not only passing basic skills tests but gaining the tools for successful careers at leading universities, without needing any racial preferences to gain admission.

KIPP, alas, is missing what is most important: teaching about God and the way His principles and logic pervade every academic discipline. KIPP is a "charter school," not a private school, which means it has all the advantages and disadvantages of receiving government funds. We desperately need more Christian schools in inner-city areas that teach with KIPP-like intensity.

And yet, God's common grace does underlie KIPP's success. High expectations, dedicated teachers, and longer workdays, weeks, and years: Those climbing tools come right out of the wisdom of Proverbs. Daniel described KIPP well: "The desire to learn is so apparent in these students. What a great place!"

If the Connerly protesters earlier this year had seen a great place like KIPP and understood its potential, they would have realized that we now have the opportunity not only to fight racial preferences but to transcend them. With more KIPPs, in a few years such correctives can be seen as not only wrong but irrelevant. And more students from deprived backgrounds can join other sons of mine at graduation exercises, confident that they've earned the diploma with their own God-given talent.