Fifty-seven years ago today the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed the course of the nation and served as the foundation for a coming decade of significant social change. With Chief Justice Earl Warren, a California conservative at the helm, the high Court delivered a unanimous decision that declared segregation in public education unconstitutional in the collection of cases known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It was a stirring victory for the plaintiffs in the case, lawyers from the NAACP, notably Thurgood Marshall, and Black children throughout the nation. Though the Court’s instruction to states to change course with “all deliberate speed” precipitated foot-dragging and outright resistance by Jim Crow states, the Brown decision remains a hallmark of constitutional law and one of the single most important decisions rendered by the Supreme Court.
It is difficult for those who were not born at that time to understand the magnitude of the Brown decision, or the impact it has had well beyond public education. In fact, in recent years, there has been considerable chatter over the decision’s relevance in today’s environment and whether or not the pursuit of integration was the correct course given current conditions across the country. What is lost in translation is the gross disparities that were legally sanctioned under Jim Crow, and the deliberate attempt by southern states to maintain conditions of servitude for Blacks that dated back to slavery. The fight for equal access to public education was not simply about the mixing of Black and white students in the classroom, it was about fulfilling the mandate of the 14th Amendment and ensuring that the state would treat all of its citizens equally. “Separate but equal” was never a reality but unequal and separate pathways to education were, as was the unequal outcomes Jim Crow produced. And while some Black children did succeed, thanks in part to strong willed parents, the Black church and historically Black colleges, the overwhelming majority of the children of that era were robbed of their right to imagine and fashion their own success.
Today, the Brown decision looms large over the current debate over education reform. Segregation in public education is still with us, but not enforced by law, but the result of housing patterns and economic conditions. While Brown was primarily directed at southern states, today we witness hyper-segregation in urban public school districts, many in the north, where middle class whites and Blacks have opted for the greener pastures of suburbia. The fleeing from inner-city America has left behind a collection of big city school districts - Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark - with a set of similar demographics and similar problems. Race too continues to be a factor, and not just in the isolation of Black students in poor performing schools. In many instances, the nation’s largest urban school districts, at some point or another over the last four decades, have come under the control and management of Black leadership. It is an undeniable truth that Black leadership has been complicit in the implosion of public education. Race also factors in the divergent experiences of Black and white students in predominantly white, suburban school districts. In what was once considered safe outposts, we are witnessing an achievement gap that consigns Black students to the lower echelon of academic courses and an environment in which Black students face disproportionate suspensions and expulsions, and dropout from school all together at higher rates than their white counterparts.
The debate over education reform can only be understood in the context of the Brown decision. If Brown was the door that allowed access, education reform is the structure that will lead to better educational outcomes for Black students. There are several key issues of education reform that the Black community must tackle if the victory won in Brown almost six decades ago is to finally result in the significant improvement of the life chances of Black children. At the heart of Brown, the decision was more than just an enforcement of the Constitution it was a statement on the morality of our nation. To reignite the passion for learning that the Brown decision represents, Black Americans need to refocus their attention on public education, and specifically the following aspects of the education reform debate.
States across the country have grappled with the issue of how best to equitably fund public education, with the common vehicle being property tax assessments. The use of real estate taxes to fund public schools has produced gross disparities in the capacity of urban school districts, with larger populations of poor residents and low property values, to provide top-notch educational services as compared to their suburban counterparts with mostly white and higher income households. There has been a number of school finance lawsuits brought in state courts that have resulted in new funding laws, but the matter of money, how much is required to level the playing field and how to fund public schools equitably continues to be a critical issue in education reform. Some states, like New Jersey with its long running school finance battle, are back at the drawing board as governors attempt to make cuts in public education to balance state budgets.
Teachers have been held sacred for so long that the idea of imposing evaluation protocols to measure their effectiveness is the equivalent in public education of touching the third rail of a subway track. As is tying pay to performance and reconstructing tenure to prevent the wholesale dismissal of younger teachers who might be more effective simply because of memorialized last in, first out (LIFO) provisions in teacher union contracts. There is a desperate need for a more rational approach to teacher hiring, placement and retention. This includes incentivizing pay for teachers and creating better career ladders for the profession. The result is that in many instances Black students are often being taught by ineffective teachers with seniority or less experienced teachers. The children who need them most are not getting instruction from the best or most effective teachers. Given the clout of local teachers’ unions with elected officials, change has been difficult to come by. Meanwhile, Black children are held hostage in the process. Black teachers and Black elected officials bear significant responsibility to speak courageously to this issue.
Whether the option is a charter school, magnet school, private school or a traditional public school, the bottom line is that we need more public schools to be much better. A lot of emotional energy has been invested in the Black community, some of it politically driven, in the debate over charter schools and vouchers for private school placement, but the real challenge is to dramatically improve the entire lot of public schools. The overwhelming number of Black children in America will be educated in a public school, so the focus must turn to how we make all schools more effective and more accountable. There are some interesting experiments underway, such as the move toward smaller high schools in New York City but what is missing is demands by Black residents for higher quality education system-wide. So, we witness the frenzy and sheer chaos as students in systems that provide “choice” compete for the limited number of spots at schools deemed excellent. It is now by the luck of the draw, accident of geography or “insider trading” that many Black students gain access to the best or better schools. Those that don’t are simply stuck, and that is why vouchers have taken hold of the imagination of many Black parents who are desperate to provide their children with a first-class education. Education reform must be system-wide and not confined to the creation of a narrow band of good schools.
The bottom-line, and there is one in education, is better educational outcomes for Black children. It won’t matter if monies are invested in infrastructure, services and curriculum, or if teachers are better trained if in the final analysis we don’t see improvements in student performance. Our aim should be high-quality education that produces graduates prepared to further their education as is now necessary if we are ever to close the earnings gap. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hit the right tone by pushing post-secondary education as the logical aim of high school completion. This strategy does not preclude so-called career and technical education, formerly known as vocational education, but it realistically asserts that advanced education is the key to competing in a 21st century global economy where low-skilled and lower-wage jobs are no longer existent and should not be the aim of high school graduates. The restructuring of curriculums as states adopt the Department of Education’s Common Core framework and the imposition of some level of evaluative testing should be supported as a means to bettering student outcomes. Standardized testing alone is not the answer, but some combination of standardized testing, improved curriculum, more effective teachers and adoption of technology driven instruction might be the pieces necessary to raise the performance level of Black students.
In the post-civil rights era, the term “community participation” has taken on the tawdriness of a four-letter word. It is, however, an important element if we are truly going to transform public education. “Learning” must become a community mantra, and respect for learning must be promoted within the Black community. It is consistent with the history of African-Americans, from seeking to learn to read under the threat of severe punishment or death during slavery, to claiming the right to equal access to public education before the Supreme Court. The fervor for education must be reignited in the Black community, and Black children must see visible manifestations of the community’s support for intellectual enlightenment. Schools and public school districts are a factor here too, as they have become impenetrable fortresses despite the fact that residents are funding their existence. It must become clear again in the Black community that education is a civil rights issue, and the intensity that was evident in the fight to integrate public schools in southern states during Jim Crow must be present in the current battle over education reform.
As the education reform debates takes shape in the nation’s capital and in states across the country there will be multiple opportunities for the Black community to engage on this issue. One of the most significant will be the revisions to and reauthorization of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, the signature federal education reform initiative. Constituents must confront Black lawmakers and educators now to have input on how the Act will be overhauled, as the Obama administration has already signaled it intends to make significant changes to the policy. At the same time, countless states are pursuing education reform and proposals are also being considered at the local school district level. It remains to be seen if Blacks will become fully engaged in education reform or remain on the sidelines as significant decisions are made that will affect coming generations of Black children.