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Counting Noses


Washington. -- Allow me to note at the outset that I support affirmative action. I think diversity is enriching. But please don't judge me by the company I keep. Some advocates of "diversity" seem determined to give diversity a bad name. Take my school district. Please.

As my son was starting first grade this week, accompanied by his teary-eyed parents, two little first-grade girls who used to go to preschool with him also arrived, although this school was not their parents' first choice.

The parents had applied last spring for their daughters to attend a unique Montgomery County school program in which only French is spoken.

Enriched programs like this in "magnet schools" have emerged in racially mixed districts across the country in recent decades to entice a diverse array of middle-class families to stay in public schools.

Nevertheless, both girls were rejected because they happen to be of Asian heritage. One girl has a white father and a mother of Chinese descent. The other has a white mother and a father of Japanese descent.

The county school system does not allow students of Asian heritage to transfer out of our neighborhood grade school because its Asian head count is so small -- only 11 out of the school's 519 students last year. If any more leave, the remaining Asian students may feel too "racially isolated," school officials have said.

Pleas to help increase the tiny Asian population at the French-immersion school, where Asian enrollment is only 4 percent, fell on deaf ears.

Driven to desperation, the Chinese-American mom asked school officials to change her daughter's classification to "white," since that is her father's race.

They did, but that didn't solve the problem. As a white, it turned out, she was blocked by another policy that discourages transfers from schools that are undergoing significant enrollment changes, which ours is, because of boundary moves.

After their story appeared in the Washington Post, a white parent from another part of the country who had adopted two sons from Korea wrote a poignant tale of trying in vain to transfer his elder son out of a "magnet school" that happens to offer a widely touted Spanish-immersion program.

The program, as it turns out, often becomes an unspoken haven for white flight by disgruntled white parents who presume the English program must be inferior. As a result, the children in the Spanish-immersion classes are overwhelmingly white and Asian and the "regular English" classes are populated mostly by blacks and, ironically, Latinos, a third of whom are learning English as a second language.

No need for "English Only" campaigns around here.

The parent of the Korean boys wrote that he wants to transfer his eldest son to another school where classes are conducted primarily in English and have a genuine diversity of races, "which, the last time I looked, included whites."

School officials say they face a dilemma in trying to balance off the need for diversity with the need to offer parents a choice. I respect that.

But, as I recall, our present legal concerns about diversity began with a little girl named Linda Brown, who was denied her choice of schools because of her race, which was black. Her case led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision.

As an African American, I cannot imagine our local school officials denying a transfer to a magnet school to a bright young black student solely because of race, unless the officials wanted to have dozens of angry civil-rights advocates at their doorstep.

But they do it to students of Asian descent. Maybe they think Asians don't need choices. Maybe they don't think Asians qualify as sufficiently oppressed minorities.

Or maybe they simply don't think Asians will put up much of a fuss.

Contrary to what some critics say, I do not believe horror stories like these justify doing away with all diversity efforts. It's just that, unfortunately, some people have oddball ways of defining "diversity."

President Clinton hit the right note when he said of affirmative action, "Mend it, don't end it." I think it is too soon to scrap all efforts to foster diversity and equal opportunity. Polls tend to show most Americans agree. It is not the need for remedies that offends Americans most. It is the excesses that occur in their application.

It is a tragedy to see some efforts get carried away with numbers and bureaucracy and forget about people and common sense. Mend them. Don't end them.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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