- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

If you ever wondered what the dying paroxysm of a dinosaur might have sounded like, listen to the noisy reaction to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative.
The civil rights establishment is howling with righteous indignation over Mr. Bush's program to end racial preferences in public college admissions and government contracts. Meanwhile, some conservatives are denouncing Mr. Bush for not going far enough.
In fact, Mr. Bush deserves plaudits, not as much for the specifics of his program as for offering a conceptual framework to move forward from one of the most painful and divisive conflicts wracking America.
Mr. Bush's efforts follow action by California university regent Ward Connerly, who is bringing to Florida the anti-race preference ballot initiative he successfully championed in California and Washington State. Chances are, if he can surmount absurd state procedural obstacles, Mr. Connerly will prevail in Florida too.
Mr. Bush came up with a different but bold approach: not to abandon affirmative action, but to substantively redefine it. Put another way, Mr. Bush retooled a 1960s civil rights concept to meet the realities of the new millennium.
The One Florida program curbs racial preferences in admissions to Florida institutions of higher learning and in public contracting. Both steps conform with 15 years of constitutional precedents striking down racial classifications in every public sphere.
But more than being unconstitutional, as I argued in my 1996 book, "The Affirmative Action Fraud," racial preferences do nothing to solve the deep and underlying social problems contributing to racial disparities in our society. For instance, black high school seniors graduate on average four grade levels below white seniors. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that only 12 percent of black seniors are proficient in reading and mathematics.
Adding points to black and Hispanic students' test scores does nothing to solve this serious problem it merely leapfrogs successful black and Hispanic students over more-successful whites and Asians. Similarly, preferences in contracting bestow benefits upon wealthy business people, assuming that benefits somehow will trickle down to the less-fortunate. By contrast, Mr. Bush's One Florida program aims at expanding the pool of qualified high school graduates and minority contractors. It is, at long last, positive-sum affirmative action that expands opportunities rather than the zero-sum race-based type that merely redistributes them.
One Florida replaces preferences in university admissions with a Talented 20 program that guarantees admission to Florida public post secondary institutions to the top 20 percent of Florida high-school graduates.
More important, One Florida begins to address the roots of the problem, which are more economic and educational than racial, even though they disproportionately afflict minority individuals. Among other features, it increases need-based college financial aid by 43 percent; helps disadvantaged students prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test; and provides funding for low-performing schools to enhance computer training and Internet access.
Similar measures are aimed at helping minority businesses surmount practical and regulatory barriers to public contracting.
One Florida builds on Jeb Bush's most important accomplishment so far: The A+ program that is the most sweeping education reform in the nation. That program creates tough new accountability standards for public schools and creates the nation's first money-back guarantee in public education: If a school fails for two years out of any four, the students are offered opportunity scholarships to choose better public or private schools.
The early recipients of opportunity scholarships under the A+ program are overwhelmingly poor and minority children who previously were consigned to failing schools. But all Florida children are beneficiaries, as the threat of competition spurs school districts across the state to improve failing schools.
With One Florida and the A+ program, Jeb Bush is tapping into a national consensus that previously has eluded politicians of both parties. Public opinion polls consistently show a large majority of Americans opposed to racial preferences of all types, yet a majority of Americans in favor of "affirmative action." The results are reconcilable only in a form of affirmative action based on need, not race.
Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People oppose One Florida because they have evolved from civil rights organizations into groups that seek to retain and expand entitlements for middle- and upper-income constituents. People of true need will benefit more from One Florida than they ever could under race-based affirmative action; but they are not the NAACP's real constituency.
Likewise, the reaction of conservatives to the One Florida program will test their commitment to expanding opportunities for the economically disadvantaged. Is compassionate conservativism oxymoronic? Jeb Bush's success or failure largely will determine whether that is so.
All Americans have a stake in wishing him well. It's time to redefine affirmative action to help those most in need and to get out of the business of classifying and dividing Americans on the basis of race, once and for all.

Clint Bolick is litigation director at the Institute for Justice.

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