As he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in the winter of 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush delivered his memorable “soft bigotry of low expectations” speech before the Latino Business Association in Los Angeles.   

“Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards,” Bush remarked. “I say it is discrimination to require anything less — the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The phrase, coined by his chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, captures well the widespread indifference toward the persistently appalling academic performance of African-American and Latino students in our nation’s public schools.  

Nearly 18 years after Bush first uttered the phrase, little has changed. 

After North Carolina education officials released the 2017-18 accountability and test results in early September, few North Carolinians bemoaned the abysmal performance of disadvantaged children, particularly African-American males, on state standardized reading tests. Even fewer voiced outrage at the generations of disadvantaged children that have been ill-served by our public schools. The organizations and activists who claim to be the moral conscience of the state chose instead to score political points by criticizing the state’s sizable investment in Read to Achieve, a well-intentioned initiative established by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2012 to ensure that all public school children read at grade level by third grade.   

Of course, those critics failed to acknowledge that Read to Achieve is simply the latest in a series of multimillion-dollar programs that have failed to improve literacy for public school students. Before the election of a Republican legislative majority, Democrats concocted various plans to address the problem, including the employment of “21st Century Literacy Coaches” starting in 2006, the implementation of mClass reading software beginning in 2009, and, of course, the adoption of the Common Core English standards in 2010.  In other words, neither Democrats nor Republicans have improved literacy instruction for our most vulnerable populations, and state test scores bear that out. 

Last year, 57.3 percent of students in grades three through eight were proficient in reading, a mere 1 percentage point improvement since 2014. Of course, statewide figures obscure the performance of student racial and ethnic subgroups. Only around 40 percent of black elementary and middle-schoolers reached grade-level reading proficiency. Far fewer earned scores that reach levels of achievement that ensure college and career readiness. 

Further disaggregated data reveal even more disconcerting facts about reading achievement in North Carolina. Statewide, around one-third of black males in the state read at grade level last year, and under one-fourth reached the higher career and college ready level of performance. Only three subgroups — students with disabilities, English language learners, and homeless students — had lower levels of reading proficiency. At least four out of five black male students failed to reach reading proficiency at nearly 200 public elementary and middle schools across the state. A handful of these schools had single-digit reading proficiency rates for black males. 

Not all schools are failing their black male students. Among magnet schools that enrolled at least 45 black male students last year, Piedmont IB Middle School, a magnet school in uptown Charlotte, had a 76.5 percent proficiency rate for black male students. Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy, a single-sex middle and high school in Wake County, had one of the highest pass rates of any school in North Carolina, 85.1 percent.   

A number of charter schools were also among the top performers. Henderson Collegiate Charter School in Vance County had a grade-level proficiency rate of 81.2 percent. Lake Norman Charter School posted an impressive 74.5 percent pass rate for its black male students, while Wilson Preparatory Academy, a K-12 blended learning charter school, posted a 68 percent rate. 

Perhaps these schools of choice hold the key to raising reading achievement for black male students.  Combined with the strategies developed by the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading project and local reading initiatives like READWS, North Carolina can finally overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations for our most vulnerable children. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of Research and director of Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.