Sunday, May 17, 2009

Doesn’t Every Child Deserve a High Quality Education?

Doesn’t Every Child Deserve a High Quality Education?
By Sam Chaltain
Daily Kos

On May 17, America will mark the 55th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education. If Marshall were 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," the unanimous 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." 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, integrated schools today are as much of a dream now as they were then, and 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 his voice and discovering his rightful place in the world.

Which child is more likely to do well in life, and in a democratic society?

Ostensibly, this inequity 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, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed.

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. "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, a sitting member of the Court he had stood 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?

Sam Chaltain is the National Director of The Forum for Education & Democracy, a national education "action tank" committed to the public, democratic role of public education — the preparation of engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens.

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