If you listen to Ron Margiotta and John Tedesco, every assignment plan other than theirs has a terminal affliction: quotas. This raises two questions. First, what is a quota? And second, why is it bad?
The first question is easy. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “quota” is a noun with two related but distinct meanings:
- a share or proportion which each of a number is called upon to contribute, or which is assigned to each; proportional share; or
- the number or proportion that is allowed or admitted.
Apparently, the second meaning is in play here.
So why are quotas bad? This second question is more complex, but it’s not that complex. “Quotas” are bad in right-leaning circles because they were once used to guarantee spots to minority groups that had historically been subject to discrimination. This sometimes caused nonminority competitors to lose out to minority competitors despite arguably superior qualifications in areas other than race.
While this practice continues to be viewed as a legitimate remedy for past wrongs in parts of the democratic world, the Supreme Court has gradually dismantled it in this country, essentially on the theory that due to our history, racial classification is always pernicious, even if it is ostensibly designed to help minorities who were historically subject to discrimination.
Importantly, however, the Supreme Court applies strict constitutional scrutiny only to quotas based on immutable, highly visible characteristics like race and national origin. It has never been applied to poverty or academic achievement. Indeed, classifications based on wealth and academic achievement are commonplace in the public and private sectors and widely regarded as smart policy.
So what precisely is the argument against “quotas” here?
Applying the Supreme Court’s logic by analogy, the argument would appear to be that wealthy, high achieving white students are somehow denied the “right” to attend a particular school because less qualified students are taking up “their” space. If so, this is illegitimate, because admission to public primary and secondary education is open to all, and there is no constitutional basis for elevating proximity over poverty or achievement as a criteria for deciding where children receive that education. There are practical considerations, like cost and convenience, but these must be balanced against other practical considerations, like the consistent body of research showing that high poverty, racially isolated schools adversely affect educational results.
Is the objection instead that poor or low achieving students are somehow denied the “right” to attend a nearby school that already has many poor or low achieving students? This is what they would have you believe, but this can’t really be the justification either, because the Margiotta/Tedesco plan did not give anyone the “right” to attend a particular school, and there is again no constitutional basis for a “right” to attend a proximate school. (Nor is it particularly plausible that poor and low achieving students who have a meaningful choice will line up to select a neighborhood school that has a high volume of poor or low achieving students.)
What pernicious effects will these “quotas” have? They will limit the system’s ability to use criteria with no constitutional status (like proximity) to prevent poor and minority children from choosing to attend affluent, racially integrated schools. They will impair the goal of isolating these students in one place so their schools can be transformed into some kind of third-rate Harlem Children’s Zone with no extra money or resources to make it work.
If we had the money to create these interventions and the research to show that their effects were sufficient to overcome the negative effects of high poverty, racially isolated schooling environments, there would be a legitimate argument for redesigning the assignment system. The argument would be about practical policy considerations, not the evils of “quotas.”
As it happens, we have no resources, there is no such research, and the yammering about quotas is a cynical effort to rally a political base that doesn’t much care about research and has no intention of devoting any additional resources to addressing the problems faced by our schools.