Today marks the fifty-seventh anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a case litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“LDF”) and considered one of the most important in the nation’s history. Many Americans understand that the Brown decision was no simple feat, but instead the culmination of decades of planning, legal strategy and sacrifice on the part of both lawyers and courageous citizens who served as plaintiffs and helped to organize efforts in the field. But true students of history also know that the approach that LDF pursued in Brown was the subject of intense debate. Some preferred to focus on equalizing resources between segregated schools for black children and white children. But LDF’s strategy was to wage a direct attack on segregated education in an effort to end the legally sanctioned racial caste system in America once and for all – a strategy viewed by many as controversial. Needless to say, history proved LDF right. While many challenges remain, no one can doubt the profoundly positive impact that the Brown decision had on this country.
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another great education debate – this time about the future of “education reform” and the role of the federal government in ensuring educational equity. Despite notable progress since the Brown decision, America is in a state of emergency when it comes to providing quality education to our nation’s poor children and children of color, particularly African Americans. Public schools are more racially and economically segregated today than they were in early 1970s. Only about half of African-American and Latino students graduate from high school on time, and they are more likely than their peers to attend “dropout factories” that graduate less than 60% of their students each year. Racial and geographic inequities in access to effective and qualified teachers and high-quality educational programs persist, and in far too many instances are widening. And the students most in need of educational support are most likely to be suspended, expelled or otherwise caught in the School-to-Prison Pipeline. These problems reveal that beneath the so-called “achievement gap” lies an even more sinister “opportunity gap.”
Yet, despite these staggering disparities, some elected officials in Washington have begun to call in recent months for a significant roll-back in the federal government’s role in educational accountability. Using any number of arguments, they have claimed that important federal programs designed to address the affects of poverty and continuing racial isolation should be slashed. And others in key Congressional committees in both the House and Senate have attacked the very statutory framework that guides federal education policy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”). Enacted at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the ESEA is the cornerstone legislation for promoting educational equity. Yet, as Congress prepares to reauthorize the ESEA, some congressional leaders have threatened to all but eliminate key accountability provisions designed to ensure equal opportunity for all students.
LDF and a coalition of other civil rights groups have stood firm in the face of these attacks on equal opportunity. Time and time again, LDF has reminded the public and congressional leaders across the political spectrum that the ESEA is a civil rights statute at its core. Our message is clear: Congress must take active steps to ensure that all children are afforded an opportunity to learn; focusing on just a few schools is woefully insufficient.
Fortunately, the chorus is growing. A coalition of over a dozen other national civil rights groups recently joined LDF in setting forth key principles for accountability. Our message has resonated even among moderate and conservative groups, as wells as representatives of the business community, all of whom have published statements calling for full federal accountability. These seemingly divergent groups have come together on common ground for one simple reason. They are not just taking a stand for racial justice and educational opportunity; they are taking a stand to fulfill Brown’s promise.
As this struggle continues, LDF will continue to stand with its allies to ensure equal opportunity for African-American children and all children. And we ask that you stand with us, too. Read about these issues on our website. And speak out to your elected officials about making the promise of Brown a reality.