Tuesday Reading List: Affirmative Action, Saving School Lunches, and Tax Loopholes That Screw Schools

Vivian Yee of The New York Times looks at the justice department's investigations into affirmative action programs:

Besieged in court, routed in eight states, accused of favoring blacks and Latinos at the expense of Asians and whites, affirmative action — a major legacy of the civil rights era — is once again the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny. But even without federal intervention, a look at affirmative action policies in 2017 shows that they have achieved their own kind of diversity, evolving from the explicitly race-based quotas of decades ago into a range of approaches that occasionally, not always, near the melting-pot ideal, often by giving preference to low-income students instead of minorities. "The reason a liberal like me is intrigued by Trump’s actions on affirmative action is that I think it could have the effect of driving universities to really pursuing socioeconomic diversity as a way of indirectly creating racial diversity,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has pushed for class-based admissions to replace race-based admissions.

I'm not so sure about that. Here's Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic with a different take:

... existing data suggest that race-conscious admissions policies are the main factors keeping overall enrollment roughly representative of America’s racial demographics. A FiveThirtyEight analysis from 2015 found that colleges in states with affirmative-action bans are less representative of the state’s demographics than colleges that are still allowed to consider race. Other simulations suggest that replacing race-conscious policies with colorblind policies that take into account applicants’ socioeconomic status yields less racial diversity on college campuses. Still, in today’s political climate, sentiment is probably more important than reality. And that’s why the move by the DOJ matters, even though it’s limited to an investigation on behalf of Asian-American plaintiffs ... achievement by Asian Americans is used by people decrying reverse racism as the grounding logic to assail race-based programs.

It's convenient to think that pursuing socioeconomic diversity will be a social-engineering-catchall that hastens racial equity. However, as Newkirk points out, there simply doesn't exist any evidence that this is possible. Just as importantly, Kahlenberg's race-neutral perspective requires us to forget history. While the United States never codified "class" into its founding documents - as the framers' European forbears had done in their home countries - they did codify race. Explicitly. Until recently! In doing so, they purposefully made race the most powerful determinant of social class status in this country. By all evidence and anecdotal accounts, race continues to function that way. You can't undo the creation of a racist caste system by ignoring it ... and that's what "colorblind policy" proposes.

In other news, Tovin Lapan of The Hechinger Report looks at the potential effects of the Trump administration's education budget on school lunch programs, zooming-in on Greenville, Mississippi:

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would nix the Greenville afterschool program and impose deep cuts in other areas that impact school meals and nutrition. The USDA, which administers numerous grants and programs that help feed needy children, is facing a budget cut of $4.7 billion, or 21 percent of its discretionary spending, while the Department of Education’s budget could fall by more than $9 billion. Even if Trump’s budget never passes, the administration has already put its stamp on school meals ... The moves befuddle researchers, who cite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that more meals for school children, and specifically more nutritious meals, benefit kids in a myriad of ways, not only in the short term, but throughout their lives. Recent studies indicate the impact of healthier meals is even greater on low-income children.

This policy is consistent with the rest of the administration's budget, which takes just about every opportunity to be cruel to poor people. Beyond the morality of taking food out of the mouths of vulnerable children, research shows that students perform better in school when they eat nutritious meals.

Finally today, Francisco Vara-Orta of Education Week reports a sleeper story that deserves more attention:

Across the country, retailers—in particular big-box stores—are pushing back on how local governments assess the value of their properties with the goal of lowering their tax bills. Using a tactic known as “dark store theory,” retailers and their legal teams are increasingly arguing that the massive stores they operate ought to be appraised as if they were vacant or “dark.” When they succeed, the annual property taxes that retailers pay—which help fund public schools in most local communities—can drop precipitously. The retailers, most of them corporate giants such as Target, Lowe’s, and Home Depot, contend the large buildings their stores occupy—typically more than 100,000 square feet—are difficult to sell because they are customized to a particular retailer ... So far, the strategy has worked, particularly in the courts, and has led to lowering the taxes of big-box companies by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to interviews with assessors and lawmakers in several states who have analyzed the effects.

The article contains some infographics, which capture the magnitude of the problem. The issue seems to be most pronounced in the post-industrial Midwest. In Michigan, for example, at least two-thirds of the state's counties lost $75 million in revenues through this loophole.

This sort of tax avoidance strategy seems consistent with the dearth of civic responsibility among corporate taxpayers in this country. We cannot have a functional society unless the wealth generators feel sufficiently responsible for the greater wellbeing of the country, instead of seeking out every tiny advantage in our byzantine tax codes. In addition, this story illustrates the absolute absurdity of basing school finance on property tax revenues. This is a dumb arrangement! It only sort of made sense in the 18th century, and it makes NO sense anymore. The real-estate-tax-avoidance strategy of the local Best Buy should never be allowed to affect the educational opportunities of small children ... but here we are.

Have a great day!