It is a safe bet that the late Thurgood Marshall, and his colleagues who litigated the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, most likely assumed that educational equality would be achieved by now. Sadly, Black children are still held captive in failing public schools, and many are attending schools as segregated as those in southern states during the Brown era. The difference today is that many Black children are attending predominantly Black schools in northern cities and some suburban outposts that are the result of Black and white middle class flight, and many of these children are the recipients of an inferior education despite the Court’s ruling in Brown. It was not the intent of the plaintiffs in Brown or we believe the justices of the Supreme Court in their unanimous ruling to have our nation take a giant step backward.
Present conditions today are the result of decades of indifference, racism, petty politics, bad public policy and a lack of vision in our nation that allowed the rapid descent of the American educational system. Now, almost six decades after the courage of the Warren Court to rule segregation in public education unconstitutional, Black Americans are in the position once again of having to be the nation’s conscience to right a wrong.
Although education reform has become a hot button issue in states across the nation, it does not appear to be a priority in the Black community except for those parents struggling to ensure that their child receives a first-class education. For the larger community, we seem to be missing the point that our future in America is dependent upon present generations of school-age children receiving an education that will allow them to compete in a global economy that is driven by intellectual capital. The new knowledge-based economy requires highly trained professionals who can apply advanced thinking to produce new streams of commerce and solve pressing problems. The days of earning a high school diploma and securing a good-wage job that could propel you into the middle class are over. The requirement is now a college degree and some training beyond that to have a fighting chance for a reasonable career.
Sadly and dangerously, Black children are being left behind. They are either trapped in bad schools, dropping out or performing at such a low level that there is a noticeable and persistent gap in their academic achievement compared to their white peers. Most dangerously though, there seems to be an expectations gap. Many educators now expect Black students to perform poorly, to fail and inevitably dropout. Many parents expect schools to fail their children. And many Black children have little expectation that they will receive a quality education or a better life in years to come. Our complacency on the issue of the quality of public education betrays the courage of African-Americans who risked jobs and lives to see that their children would be given the same opportunity to succeed as whites. We now stand in the shadow of the Brown decision, looking at a mess we helped create.
The reform of our nation’s public schools must become the priority of the Black community. Education must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century and the concern of all of us, whether we have children of school age or not. At a point in history when we should be celebrating our remarkable journey in America, we see a future that is not as bright as the past and future generations that may fall short of the progress made by their parents. It is a tragedy that need not be. There is still time to fix this but time is running out. Our Black political and organizational leadership need to come to the forefront of the education reform debate. It is not enough to denounce vouchers or school choice, or express anger at teachers and school administrators from the sidelines. We need to be actively engaged in the battle to turnaround public education. We must also abandon pre-conceived notions about what works based upon models that are no longer relevant, and be free to collaborate with any interests whose only interest is improving public education.
If public education fails in America, we are doomed.