A U.S. coin commemorating
the Little Rock Nine's
By Sam Chaltain (MCT)
WASHINGTON — This Sunday, America will mark 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 apartheid 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," in a unanimous decision the Warren Court wrote, "the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," and the opportunity to learn "is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Civil rights advocates everywhere were joyous. The Chicago Defender proclaimed May 17, 1954, as "the beginning of the end of the dual society in American life and the system of segregation that supports it." Marshall himself remembered feeling "so happy I was numb."
In practice, unfortunately, integrated schools today are as much of a dream now as they were then, yet the subject of segregation has all but disappeared from the national conversation about education reform. 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.
Providing 'separate but equal' facilities, it seems, has once again become an acceptable justification for allowing an inequitable schooling system to exist.
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.
Ostensibly, the racial inequity in education was what the court ended in 1954. But legal changes tend to outpace social changes, and so 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 narrow 5-4 decision, reversed that decision.
The unfair distribution of resources, Justice Potter Stewart conceded, "has resulted in a system of public education that can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust. It does not follow, however, that this system violates the Constitution."
Justice Lewis Powell agreed, adding: "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 he had argued the Brown case before two decades prior, 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. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution."
After so many years and so little real change, something new — perhaps even something drastic — needs to be done.
What if Powell and Stewart were wrong? What if we made the guarantee of a high-quality public education our nation's 28th constitutional amendment? Is that the game-changer we need to make the promise of Brown a reality, 55 years later?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sam Chaltain is the national director of The Forum for Education & Democracy, 1307 New York Avenue NW, 3rd Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005; Web site: http://www.forumforeducation.org. For information about the funding of The Forum for Education & Democracy, please go to http://www.forumforeducation.org/our-team/our-funders.
This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.
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