You might as well beat those ploughshares back into swords: the battle over affirmative action is on again in Michigan.

The state Court of Appeals ruled on June 11 that a petition to bar affirmative action can go ahead. If the petition language became law, state agencies and universities would no longer be permitted to consider the race of their applicants. Affirmative action supporters plan to appeal the ruling, but in any event the legal delay appears to have pushed any ballot initiative on the subject out to the November 2006 elections.

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Meanwhile, the state House passed a budget amendment last Wednesday forbidding government-funded universities from using racial preferences in admissions. Rep. Julie Dennis (D-Muskegon) called the prohibition of state-sponsored racial preferences "racist," and House Democrats exchanged recriminations over their failure to stop the amendment’s passage. Tempers soon flared and, in a scene more common to legislatures in Taiwan or South Korea than Lansing, Michigan, the verbal sparring got physical.

Rep. Morris Hood (D-Detroit) grabbed at Democratic staffer Alan Canady, who shoved him back. Other legislators and the House sergeants pulled the two apart before the altercation went any further. No word if Hood or Canady has been snapped up by the major leagues of political pugilism in Taipei or Seoul.

You know a public policy fight has gotten ugly when skirmishes erupt not just between the opposing camps, but within them.

So before we get completely lost in the fog of affirmative action warfare, we should ask ourselves: is this even the right fight? What is the fundamental problem we are trying to solve, and is affirmative action really the right solution at the right time?

The problem, clearly, is that too many minority students leave high-school unprepared for college or the modern labor market. Affirmative action’s solution is to gloss over these students’ educational shortcomings and usher them along as if they were adequately prepared.

Is that really the best we can do? Aren’t we just acquiescing to our own failure to teach these kids elementary- and high-school subjects when they are actually in elementary- and high-school? Wouldn’t it be better to fix our K-12 education system so that it doesn’t fail so many students in the first place?

There’s one scenario, the most likely one, in which huge amounts of time, energy, and political capital will be spent fighting for and against affirmative action over the next few years in Michigan. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that affirmative action is retained or even expanded. Would its beneficiaries be as well served as if we had spent all that time, energy, and political capital transforming our K-12 education system?

Would you rather be a poorly educated high-school graduate who can get into college anyway — but possibly flounder there because you are ill-prepared — or a well educated one who can gain admission on his or her own merits?

This is not a hypothetical question. The evidence on how to make schools cater more effectively to each and every student is plain. We just have to find the guts act on it.

African American students attending urban catholic schools are far more likely to graduate, to gain admission to college, and to graduate from college than their peers who attend public schools. Between the 4th and the 8th grades, private schools significantly reduce the racial achievement gap. Public schools don’t.

Around the world, education systems in which schools must compete for the opportunity to serve students, and in which families have an unfettered choice of schools, are more responsive, effective, and efficient that state education monopolies such as the one that currently dominates our nation.

If we can find the courage to toss our public school monopoly on the ash heap of history, and replace it with a market-based public education system that actually serves the public, our children won’t need affirmative action.


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research and educational institute. He is the author of books, monographs, and studies, including Market Education: The Unknown History; With Clear Eyes, Sincere Hearts and Open Minds: A Second Look at Public Education in America; and Forging Consensus.