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Brown @ 50, A High Note for Gay Rights, and Bogus Degrees in Georgia

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, May 3-14.

Landmark civil rights decisions are often double-edged swords—sources of inspiration and frustration—and Brown v. Board of Education is no exception. When the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling arrives on May 17, it will rightly be celebrated as the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. But it will also find, nationwide, public schools that are still separate and unequal in many ways. While no minority is legally barred from attending certain schools today, a series of court rulings since 1954—including 1974's Milliken v. Bradley, stating that city and suburban districts cannot merge for desegregation purposes (and resulting in "white flight" from urban areas)—have made it difficult to balance white/minority demographics. Then again, who considers forced busing an ideal solution?

And there's the rub—ideal integration starts with ideal neighborhoods, where whites and minorities live side by side harmoniously and send their kids to the same schools. Does this actually happen? Yes, but only in some places. And, as the authors of two books on the Brown case make clear, racial contact is, in and of itself, important. Richard Kluger, author of Simple Justice, quotes the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (the African American lawyer who won the Brown case), who wrote in his dissent to the Milliken ruling: "Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

If the '50s and '60s were watershed decades for civil rights, perhaps this decade will be remembered for gay rights. This past year alone has seen the success of TV's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and a run on gay marriages. So it's no surprise that Luke Bruffee, an out-of-the-closet adviser for the gay-straight student alliance at Belmont High School in Massachusetts put together a concert featuring student singers and the Boston Gay Men's Chorus—with the principal's blessing. "I think the kids are all sort of asking why is [same-sex marriage] such a big deal," the administrator says. "They don't see a problem. I think this is one of those cases of the children leading the adults." He may be right. Recent polls show a majority of Americans, and especially teens, leaning toward favoring equal rights for gays. Partial proof is that Belmont is not the only school with a gay-straight alliance; there are roughly 2,000 others nationwide.

It's assumed teachers of all political stripes would be the recipients of what John Kerry recently promised if elected President—$30 billion over 10 years to recruit and reward outstanding teachers. The money would be used to raise salaries across the board and reward educators demonstrating excellence, based on student performance, teacher testing, and peer review. The raise part is a no-brainer, but the assessment angle, already making the unions nervous, is problematic. Student performance in what areas? And which "peers"?

Teachers in Denver, however, are way ahead of Kerry. In March, they approved by a 59 percent majority a "pay for performance" plan that would reward teachers for, among other things, getting advanced certification, working in high-poverty schools, and teaching math and science. The plan demands a tax increase that won't be voted on until late 2005, but Denver teachers already have experience with it—through a four-year pilot project involving 637 teachers in 16 schools, nearly 600 of whom collected bonuses of $1,500 a year. If the plan does take hold, in January 2006, the maximum annual pay for most teachers will go from $60,000 to $100,000. "More importantly," says one teacher, "this is such a fair way to pay teachers. It's so appealing because it makes me work harder."

Working hard didn't seem to occur to 12 Georgia educators under investigation for collecting bonuses by earning bogus advanced degrees from a university in Liberia. Turns out, all that the 11 teachers and one principal had to do was pay between $1,000 and $1,500 and describe their "life experiences" to receive the degrees. State educators discovered not only that St. Regis University is a "diploma mill"—a provider of worthless credentials—but also that the evaluation service that rubber-stamped the degrees may be just as bogus. Sheila Danzig, owner of the Florida-based Career Consultants International, claims that her company's legit. Yes, she admits, CCI does receive fees from St. Regis for "evaluating" academic credentials, and, yes, until two years ago, she was a paid consultant to the "university." But the Liberian government's Web site does state that St. Regis is accredited. Joseph Siegle, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, isn't buying it. Now run by an interim government under a UN-brokered settlement of a brutal civil war, Liberia, he says, is a "kleptocracy" that does not "have the capacity to run a legitimate accredited university."

—Rich Shea

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