Unfinished Business: The Civil Rights Act and Education
Signed into law 50 years ago today, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains one of the most important pieces of legislation in this nation’s history. It set the course for how our country lives its democracy.
With its passage and adoption, President Lyndon B. Johnson and a majority of Congress responded to the cries of millions of Americans and thousands of protesters who marched, rallied, and challenged the status quo, a state of affairs with which I was all too familiar growing up in the South.
My personal recollections of what my small central-Florida hometown was like in the early 1960s will come as no surprise: two high schools, two movie theaters, two drinking fountains at every gas station, two divided communities—one “colored,” one white. President Johnson’s leadership and that of Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other courageous leaders of that generation rescued us from that shameful legacy. Slavery was our country’s original sin, and it took that generation of leaders, black and white, to renew the process of expiation, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
One of the most significant provisions of the Civil Rights Act was Title IV, which authorized the U.S. attorney general to enforce the desegregation of public schools and called for a survey to show “the lack of availability of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin” in public schools. That survey became the basis of James S. Coleman’s “Equality of Educational Opportunity” report, which many view as the most influential education study of the last 50 years.
Who was it that ushered us through that tumultuous time and not only shone a light on the injustices of our society, but also led the way to true change? Among many others, two teachers: King and Johnson. From the pulpit to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King’s lessons changed America; LBJ’s experiences as an elementary school teacher at a school in south Texas serving Mexican-American children made an indelible impression on the young future president.
In his 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, which he delivered to Congress a week after violent racial upheaval in Selma, Ala., President Johnson spoke movingly of his experiences as a teacher, connecting poverty and education to the civil rights movement:
“My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes.
“I often walked home late in the afternoon after the classes were finished wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that I might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”
In the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, what headway have we made in making high-quality public education free and accessible to all our country’s children? How much progress have we made in fulfilling the dreams of LBJ and MLK?
President George W. Bush was among four U.S. presidents to speak at the Civil Rights Summit held at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, in April. The event was co-hosted by my school, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin; the LBJ Foundation; and the LBJ library. The 43rd president of the United States chose to focus his remarks on education and civil rights, echoing Johnson’s sentiments in connecting civil rights and learning.
“Those who engage in oppression and exploitation always deny real learning,” President Bush said. “Those who fight oppression always insist on equal education. Through civil rights laws, we assure justice in the present. Through education, we secure justice for the next generation.”
President Bush is responsible for some of the most transformative education legislation since the Johnson era. Whether one believes the No Child Left Behind Act was effective or detrimental, it can at least be said that the initiative sought to address the right issues.
Since President Johnson’s time, we have made great strides in equality as a legal matter, but there remains a major gap in equity. One sees hope, though, in the generation now coming of age: The “millennials” are burdened with less overt bigotry and blessed with greater tolerance than their parents and grandparents.
What is to be done now to redeem the promise of equal opportunity? For one thing, it is clear that Johnson was correct in connecting poverty to equal access to education. Research beginning with the Coleman Report has consistently shown that family and economic conditions are the single largest influence on student achievement.
Today at the LBJ School, the faculty, staff, and I have the opportunity to educate a new cohort of leaders in public service, many of them involved in setting education policy. That said, today’s K-12 educators are unquestionably our front-line public servants. Teachers are shaping the minds and setting the stage for the next generation, providing equal access to education within their own classrooms, even if they are somewhat hampered by overzealous standardized testing and bloated administrations.
Entrusted with our most precious public resource—our children—they frequently do so with low pay and too little support. They are also too often blamed for all of the problems in our schools today and the inequalities in outcomes for different children. Yet there is compelling research that shows that, generally speaking, our teachers are doing an amazing job against long odds.
Children who are in the hardest-to-serve communities fall behind during the first five years of their lives, and fall behind again every summer when school is out. Yet when school is in, poor children learn about as quickly as children in our most-advantaged communities. This finding is heartening and a testament to the good work of our teachers. It also points to what our priorities ought to be going forward.
Holding teachers accountable is of course appropriate, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that the problems in our educational system lie elsewhere. If students are much more equal in school than out, the logical conclusion is that reducing inequality requires investing in poor children when they are not in school. This is why faculty experts at my school are focusing on preschool, summer programs, child support, and home-visitation programs—initiatives that address the most pressing problems in our educational system.
Pursuing the goal of educational equality is a matter of fairness, equity, and justice. It is deeply rooted in the American dream. With our country falling behind others on international exams, it is also a matter of global competitiveness. In a globalized economy, we simply cannot afford to have so many entering the workforce so unprepared.
The rising generation of leaders should not run from government service, but run to it. As I tell my students, if you don’t like the way the game is being played, then get in the game and change it.
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