Improving Schools: A Job for Parents, Not Bureaucrats

With the arrival of a new Democratic administration, the country will no doubt experience another bout of self-reflection and debate on race-based preferences. Despite the fact we have elected an African-American president -- a clear demonstration if ever there was one of the diminishing level of racism in America -- the civil rights lobby sees no reason to diminish their fierce defense of a racial spoils system which has come to dominate education, contracting, and employment at all levels of government.

But there may be another avenue which the country can pursue, at least when it comes to public schools -- one far less divisive and more effective in removing racial barriers. There is no magic to it really: all it takes is encouraging parents to seize control of their own local schools from petty bureaucrats and take issue with seemingly race-neutral policies which have an adverse impact on minority students.

A recent tussle in Fairfax County, an affluent suburb of Washington D.C., provides an excellent example of just how it can be done. Fairfax County schools, among some of the best in the nation, have employed a grading system at odds with virtually all other districts in the country. Most schools grade in ten-point increments with, for example, 90-100% resulting in an "A" and 60% being the lowest passing grade. But in Fairfax County a six-point grading scale is used which breaks down as follows:

A     94-100            C     74-79

B+   90-93              D+   70-73

B     84-89              D     64-69

C+   80-83              F     Below 64

Parents have long complained that the grading system puts their children at a disadvantage in college admissions, honors programs placement, and automatic merit scholarships when competing with students graded on a traditional system. Indeed, the county's own 120-page study released this month confirmed that in various ways. For example, it confirmed that a majority of colleges surveyed do not re-calculate grades to account for its more stringent grading system. It also confirmed that Fairfax County students have lower GPAs compared to students elsewhere with the same SAT scores (suggesting that they would have received the benefit of higher grades in other school districts). Moreover, evidence from robust research demonstrates that the students most adversely affected by the extra rigorous system were minority students.

But the Fairfax County School Board officials for years have refused to budge. The superintendent seemingly ignored the findings of his own report and recommended no change in the grading scale. A majority of the Fairfax County School Board also would have none of it and remained committed to the existing system.