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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board

By Guest Blogger — May 12, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, co-founders of Educators for Excellence (E4E), are guest posting this week. E4E is a national teacher-led nonprofit that works to elevate the teaching profession and improve outcomes for students by ensuring the voices of educators are included in the policy conversations that impact their classrooms and careers.

In the history of the United States, there are a few landmark moments when institutional barriers that preordained entire groups of people to a life of struggle and inequality came crashing down, opening a path to opportunity. One of those moments was May 17, 1954, when, in a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state laws establishing separate but “equal” schools based on race were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. This decision began the process of healing one of the greatest scars laid upon our nation’s history: the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision establishing legal apartheid.

This coming Saturday, we will commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, which has undeniably improved access to quality education for students of color and helped bring our country closer to educational and economic justice. But as we celebrate this landmark decision, it is imperative that we use it as an opportunity to reflect on how far we have to go and the challenges still facing millions of students across the country.

At the time of the Brown decision, it was almost sight unseen to find an African-American on a college campus in any role other than service worker. At that time, only 1 in 40 African-Americans earned a college degree and only 1 in 7 had a high school diploma. Today, according to the Census Bureau, 85% of African Americans have achieved a high school diploma and more than 20% hold an associates degree or higher.

Despite this progress, 60 years later, low-income students and students of color in our public schools still face tremendous obstacles rooted in the policies and economics of the school districts they’re learning in. While barriers to equal opportunity in education are no longer enshrined into law, the fact is, only 1 in 10 low-income and minority students graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree.

While the Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored racial segregation -a vital step toward equality--the Court’s decision didn’t automatically create the educational system that would be required to fully realize educational equity. As a result, the path to opportunity that was opened through Brown is littered with inequities in teaching quality, school funding, and community engagement and school climate, making the quest for educational and economic justice all the more difficult to achieve. Only when we address the quality of education being provided in our most challenging school districts will we be able to address the inequalities that remain over half a century after this landmark decision.

Given these realities, we have an obligation, as educators and policymakers to not simply stand by and expect that educational and economic justice will organically flow from a legal decision, no matter how groundbreaking. We need to create systems that work to improve our schools in all communities, helping them to overcome the challenges entrenched poverty presents to learning and the make-up of our neighborhoods.

On another important date, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack Obama referenced one of Dr. King’s most insightful prescripts: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Expanding upon this powerful acknowledgement, he went on to note that: “it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.” There are no more important hands than those of our country’s educators and no greater insights than those they have obtained in their classrooms to help bend this arc in the direction of educational and economic justice.

Over the course of the next week, Educators for Excellence (E4E) teachers from across the country will contribute a series of blog posts that will focus on some of the critical reforms they believe are necessary to continue the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, to help erase educational inequality for low-income students and students of color across the country. These educators are among thousands who, each day, are working to bend the arc of history toward justice--and are doing so both inside and outside of their classrooms by sharing their voices and ideas, and taking collective action to see those things become reality. We hope you will stop by regularly to read and engage with them.

--Evan Stone and Sydney Morris

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.