Education Opinion

Forging a National Agenda For a Just Society

By Rosemary C. Salomone — August 22, 1984 11 min read

In his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York painted with broad strokes a vision of America in the late 1980’s and beyond. He spoke of fairness and reasonableness, of civil rights and human dignity, and of mutuality--the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all.

From those opening remarks on through Walter F. Mondale’s acceptance speech, there emerged a clear consensus on one overall goal--to restore to the policymaking process a sense of community concern and social responsibility for the condition of all society’s members, particularly the least advantaged. It is now left to Democratic party strategists to give detail to that vision and to forge a national agenda that draws on the strength of party tradition, regroups the old and new Democratic coalitions, and addresses some difficult questions as we move toward a more just society. Education and the federal role in education must sit high on that agenda, and equality of educational opportunity must serve as a guiding force in its formulation.

As the Democrats set about this complex task, they would be wise to draw from the past--not only sentimental memories, but also lessons on the difficulties of transforming noble principles into workable social policy. This is an ideal year in which to take stock of our recent social history. Just 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawed racially segregated schools. Just 20 years ago, the Congress expanded the equality principle into a program of social reform in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In Brown, the Court unanimously stated that because of “the importance of education to our society ... the opportunity of an education ... where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Equality of educational opportunity was thereby raised to the level of a constitutionally protected right. In the context of that decision and the year 1954, equality clearly meant, at a minimum, entitlement to an education in a nonsegregated setting. Whatever else that concept might mean has never been resolved by the struggles of Congress, the federal courts, and the society at large to define it further.

The Brown decision established the setting in which future political actors would operate. But it was not until a decade later that the strong leadership of Lyndon B. Johnson combined with firm Congressional support to translate Brown’s legal mandate into a broader national agenda. During the late 1960’s, the three branches of government worked hand in hand to eliminate race discrimination and overcome the effects of poverty. The dominant theme in that period--equality--was built on the idea of human dignity, political participation, and individual choice. Social policy was formulated in the context of welfare-state goals--government would distribute public funds to raise needy individuals to a minimum educational level. Two major pieces of legislation, both premised on the idea of equal access, emerged from that era. In 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act. Title VI of that law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs. The next year, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 [ESEA] provided an unprecedented amount of federal aid for school systems to use in creating remedial programs for the educationally and economically disadvantaged.

As we approached the 1970’s, other groups--the physically and emotionally handicapped, language minorities, women--began to make equality demands on courts and Congress. Educational reformers used legislation and litigation to achieve educational rights, not just for racial minorities, but for these newly identified groups as well. As a result of such advocacy efforts, the Congress and the federal courts struggled to breathe substance into the equality mandate of Brown and to apply that mandate to a variety of groups with disparate histories of social neglect. The equality concept changed in that period, from a concept of individual rights to one of group or collective rights. Laws such as P.L. 94-142 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 were the result.

As the equality movement gained momentum, it became clear that not only is equality for all expensive, but equality for some may intrude on the liberty of others. And so equality competed with local autonomy and individual choice as values underlying the policy-making process. And when resources declined and costs escalated during the 1970’s, equality began to give way to diversity--diversity of needs and taste. Mandatory busing to achieve racial balance had moved north, striking at housing patterns and neighborhood schools, and prompting calls for freedom of association. The education of the handicapped was diverting scarce local and state funds from other groups and individuals. Bilingual education as a prescribed methodology for linguistic-minority students had struck at the essence of America’s identity and was taking jobs away from nonbilingual teachers. The “melting pot” had become a seething cauldron of ethnic-group demands. Federal “assistance,” many felt, had evolved into “coercion,” as the government threatened to withdraw federal funds from school systems found in noncompliance with civil-rights statutes. America’s strong political culture of local control over education was besieged from all sides. Middle America felt overlooked and overtaxed.

It was against this backdrop of political confusion, economic retrenchment, and moral despair that Ronald” Reagan approached the 1980 Presidential election. He built his platform on the ideas of limited government and constrained fiscal spending. Unlike the Great Society programs that had bypassed the states and created a direct interchange between federal and local government, Mr. Reagan’s “new federalism” had at its core a redefinition of state government as the pivot of American federalism. In exchange for greater administrative autonomy, states would assume increased financial responsibility for maintaining social-welfare programs. More specifically, the Republican platform in 1980 promised to "... restore common sense and quality to education ..., replace the crazy-quilt of wasteful programs with a system of block grants ..., support deregulation ..., halt forced busing ..., enact tuition tax relief into law.”

What promised to be a federal retreat from educational priority-setting has in fact translated into a “disinvestment” in public schooling and a retreat from the equality principle. Statistics demonstrate that federal programs of the pre-Reagan era have indeed succeeded in providing effective education and promoting participatory rights of students and parents. Remedial programs operated under Title I of ESEA have raised achievement scores in reading and mathematics. Title VII of the same act mandated bilingual programs that have reduced dropout rates among Hispanics. Voluntary desegregation programs under the Emergency School Aid Act of 1972 have encouraged innovative programs to desegregate schools. Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination has significantly increased the participation of women in school athletics. Yet all these were targeted by the Reagan Administration for budget reductions, consolidation into state block grants, deregulation, or weakened enforcement efforts.

With these ups and downs in federal commitment, equality of educational opportunity in 1984 has assumed a different contour for different groups. For racial minorities, there are indicators of a return to pre-Brown “separate but equal” programs and facilities. For linguistic minorities, “equal” now means “effective” as measured by a “whatever works” standard. More than a decade of controversy surrounding proper goals and methodology has brought us full circle back to assimilation as the end, English-language instruction as the means, and achievement-test scores as the measure of success for children whose dominant language is not English. As for handicapped students, equal education translates merely into the provision of “some” benefit--a sharp departure from the “maximization of potential” goals of the previous decade. Recent federal policies define equal educational opportunity not as “equal” or “more is equal,” but as “different” treatment that is circumscribed by consideration of financial cost and administrative burden. As for women, equality has never gone beyond equal treatment per se--there has been no affirmative action for female students. However, weakened enforcement, narrow court rulings, and limited financial resources pose the threat of regression to “less than equal” services for them.

Considering both this turbulent past and a present environment in which there is little moral commitment to the disadvantaged, the Democratic party must formulate a national education agenda. As history demonstrates, policy innovations are often shaped by Presidential leadership. LBJ’s “war on poverty” led to passage of ESEA Richard M. Nixon’s “war on busing” led to passage of the Emergency School Aid Act to promote voluntary desegregation strategies. Mr. Reagan’s “war on government waste” led to sweeping changes in federal school finance through consolidation, deregulation, and budget cuts. And history will show whether Mr. Mondale’s “war on self-interest” will revitalize America’s spirit of community concern and social responsibility.

Innovations in public policy can also grow out of national crisis or powerful waves of public opinion. The recent push for quality education is one example. As we well know, several major reports published in the past two years have leveled severe criticism against the American school system and have jarred the educational establishment, the federal government, and the American public into action. Yes, we must address such broad-based issues as personnel recruitment, curriculum reform, and standards for excellence. But we must take heed that “quality” education does not merely replace “equality” as the slogan of the decade.

When we cut through the rhetoric, we see two perspectives dominating the equality/quality debate. First, there are those, like Mr. Reagan, who see a link between the civil-rights reforms of the past two decades and the decline in educational excellence. Underlying this view is the mistaken belief that equality and excellence are mutually exclusive, that by allocating resources to meet the needs of the disadvantaged we have neglected the needs of the larger population. In reality, the problems plaguing public education in America stem from a far more complex set of social, political, and economic factors.

Then there is the general feeling that quality education must be our primary concern, and that if quality is ensured, then equality will automatically follow. This persuasive political argument rings hollow when played out on the state and local levels, however. It assumes that the needs of all children, including the disadvantaged, would be afforded equal concern and at least equal resources in the policy-making process at these levels. History has proven otherwise.

The equality/quality debate has little merit. It has proven to be a mental exercise at best and diversionary at worst. In practice, equality and quality are mutually supportive. Both focus on the educational process and provide substantive criteria for the provision of an appropriate education based on individual needs. In fact, discourse on equality has provided the terminology and established the perspective for the current dialogue on excellence. Over the past 20 years, a substantial body of case and statutory education law has developed under legal norms” that use equality language. Terms used by courts and legislators--such as “appropriate,” “adequate,” and “meaningful” education--have focused our attention away from futile attempts to equalize inputs (resources) or outputs (test scores) and toward the process of teaching and learning in between those two points. As we have become more concerned with providing for the diverse needs of diverse students, the right to an equal education has developed as a statement of substantive values and not merely as a procedural guarantee of fair process.

It cannot be denied that equality demands making choices among individuals and programs. It demands ordering priorities and developing criteria for allocating goods and services. It is also true that the separation of powers, federalism, and a tradition of local educational control will continue to loom over the policymaking process. But if the progress made in the past three decades toward reaching a more just society is not to be lost, then we must strike a careful balance between need and merit and between justice and individualism in redistributing society’s scarce resources. This is no easy task for a nation whose brief history is both tainted by institutionalized injustice and built on individual freedoms and dignity.

Our struggle to realize the equality mandate of Brown has taught us that the road between moral precept and public policy is rough and winding. As the Democratic party attempts to revitalize that mandate, it must not be immobilized by the mandate’s limitations but rather energized by its substantive force.

We now know that equality as a policy goal in itself is unrealistic. Equality of results is limited by economic conditions and by differences in individual potential. But we also know that equal treatment alone often does not suffice. In fact, justice demands that “equality for all” must mean “different or more is equal” for some. We may never achieve the equality ideal, but it must continue to serve as a guiding principle we use to define educational rights. This conception of equality as a direction for educational policymaking is a moral necessity.