Schools remain segregated — economically
By Sam Chaltain
Sunday marked the 55th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall's historic Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education.
If Marshall were still alive, however, he would urge us to stop celebrating 1954 and start accepting responsibility for our complicity in the creation of a "separate but equal" education system — with one method of instruction for the poor and another for the privileged.
In theory, the Brown decision represents the most hopeful strains of the American narrative: working within a system of laws to extend the promise of freedom, more fairly and fully, to each succeeding generation.
"In the field of public education," the Warren Court wrote, the opportunity to learn "is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
In practice, integrated schools today are as much of a dream now as they were then. Worse still, many of the newest and most promising schools in our nation's cities are actually increasing the racial stratification of young people and communities — not lessening it.
In this system, some schools receive ample funding, while others scrape by. Some schools are filled with passionate, experienced educators, while others are flooded with passionate, inexperienced rookies.
And while one child is being taught that the key to success is finding the right, multiple-choice answer to other people's questions, another is learning that success comes from finding one's voice and discovering one's rightful place in the world.
Which child is more likely to do well in life, and in a democratic society? Certainly, the one who is taught to think critically, reflect and ask questions.
In 1973 the court was again asked to intervene, this time when a group of poor Texas parents claimed that their state's reliance on local taxes to determine per-pupil expenditures violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed with the parents, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed that decision.
Justice Lewis Powell wrote: "Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this court as guaranteed by the Constitution." If it were, Powell conceded, "virtually every state will not pass muster."
For Justice Marshall, now a sitting member of the court, that was precisely the point. "The court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed," he wrote, even though "no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society's well being."
Marshall understood that without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn't work.
"Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights," he explained. "Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society."
After so many years and so little real change, something new — perhaps even something drastic — needs to be done.