Today is the anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark, unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court in 1954. In this ruling, the Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The lawyer for the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who in 1975 was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court. The cases that led to Brown v. were sponsored by the NAACP. (underscoring the critical role of advocacy and justice organizations in sparking systems change).
Sadly, we still have a largely segregated school system today. I witnessed this first hand.
My three children went to public schools in the city of Providence, RI. We live in the city and sent our kids to public schools because we believe that public education can be the great equalizer and because we want our kids to live in an inclusive society.
Out of three schools they attended, only their exam high school, Classical, came close to representing the fairly equally distributed racial and ethnic make-up of our dynamic city. The enrollment of students in the urban core are predominately children of color with large numbers of low income and first generation immigrant children who deserve more support than they are receiving.
Get outside the urban core and it’s much harder to find children of color. We’re not a lot different here than schools in many parts of the country.
I have seen first hand the struggles of schools trying to make do with few resources, too many kids per teacher, widely divergent student needs, uninspired leadership, too much bad or poor teaching and ever changing mandates. At times I’ve been jealous of the countless resources and one-on-one attention that our private school friends have attested to.
Yet I have to say, there is nothing more powerful than showing up at awards night at the high school and looking out on a stage filled with kids of every color and from every side of town. Than standing shoulder to shoulder with parents from many lands for whom the belief in the American dream where education is the path to a brighter future is a powerful to them as it was for me.
I’ve been fortunate to consult with charter schools (and some small independents that serve low income kids) that are trying to remodel urban education. But even they are faced by huge financial and educational struggles. Luckily we are seeing small, but bright experiments across the US. While it will be extremely costly to roll these models out across all schools across the US, it is too costly not to.
Even Senator John McCain has called access to quality education “THE civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
There is much work to be done. If we truly aspire to achieve what we profess, it will require our resolve as a society to not just talk a good game, but to put our money where our ideals are. There is no better investment in our future, whether that is in our health, our wealth or our quality of life, than an educated populace. All kids deserve high quality public education.
Which brings me to the Supreme Court. As we’ve witnessed over the many decades, the court has enormous power to bring forth a more just society, or to allow power to remain entrenched. Who is selected matters. A lot. We hope President Obama chooses wisely.