Public schools have certainly been in the news and on my mind lately, with the anniversary of the landmark “Brown vs Board of Education” legislation, the defeat of millage in the Park Hill school system, and the new “common core standards” adopted in most states but controversial in this area. Then, of course, there is all the activity in state legislatures about what to do with the crisis state of large urban districts such as in Detroit, Kansas City and St Louis. Having been a lifelong educator in two institutions that prepared large numbers of teachers, and having two daughters and a son-in-law teaching and grandchildren in teacher training programs, I have tried to follow these issues closely. The issues are extremely complicated and politically divisive. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I have come to a few conclusions that I will share in this column and a future piece. With the recent 60th anniversary of “Brown vs. Board of Education” in the news, I will start there. To review, before the Civil War, African Americans rarely had schools available for them, and the few slave owners who provided education for their slaves were often castigated. Little or nothing changed until about 30 years after the Civil War, when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1869 that segregated schools were constitutional as long as black and white schools were equal. Of course, schools primarily for former slaves were anything but equal, often with poorly trained teachers in inadequate facilities with inadequate supplies being the norm. “Brown vs. Board of Education” was a 1954 US Supreme Court landmark ruling that was initiated in nearby Topeka, Kan. that established that segregated schools were inherently unequal and were unconstitutional. Many readers will remember the civil rights marches and the violent protests against forced integration and busing of African American students into previously white schools. The early 60’s were filled with violence, both for and against civil rights for minority groups. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion or national origin. Importantly, the act also provided the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation. Despite this, much more violence occurred as troops were used to enforce school integration. In 1971, the US Supreme Court upheld busing as a legitimate means of achieving integration of the public schools. Many school systems also started using magnet schools and other means to achieve court-supervised integrated schools. By 2007, court-supervised integration was phased out by another US Supreme Court ruling, along with mandated busing. When upwardly mobile black and white inner city residents left for the suburbs after court-ordered integrated housing took effect, the inner cities consisted of predominantly poor, minority families. Charter schools and parochial schools increased rapidly, which also drained the public schools of students with educational potential. The result of all these factors is that inner city schools became predominantly segregated again, became even poorer and its students less motivated. Issues of joblessness, drugs, crimes motivated by desperation, and violence predominate to this day, and inner city schools across the country have failed to meet accreditations standards, and are in severe financial distress. This steady increase in the isolation of African Americans and Latino students along with the double segregation of race and poverty has largely taken the nation back to the pre “Brown vs. Board of Education” days. “Brown vs. Board of Education” worked in that when minority students were integrated into better achieving districts, the minority students did much better, but it appears that in the inner cities, we are largely back to where we started from. All these factors have been aggravated by the rapid growth of minority groups in the US. One study of the public schools showed a 28 percent decrease in white enrollment, 19 percent increase in black students and 495 percent increase in Latino students in recent years. Today, nearly half of the nation’s public school students are both low income and people of color, and that percentage is growing. I suspect that many readers are unaware that there are now more Latinos than African Americans in the US, or that by about 2050, Latinos are projected to become a larger ethnic group than Caucasians in the US. That, of course, is why Latinos are being courted so heavily by both political and marketing campaigns. We have learned through research that education is more a matter of socio-economic level than of race. Educational potential cuts across all races, and is more influenced by family income, family stability, and opportunities than by race. Unlike a few decades ago, there is little inclination to deal effectively with poverty. Poverty rates are rising, while per student spending is declining, and food, health and welfare budgets are being cut across the nation. The situation is very complex, but this short review convinces me of one thing. A solution has to be found, perhaps of the magnitude of “Brown versus the Board of Education.” A minority group will become the majority group in a few short decades, and our leaders better figure out how to effectually educate minority group members along with solving underlying issues of poverty. Our future as a democracy depends on an educated electorate. One more thought: slashing funds for food, medical care and education won’t solve the problems. Cutting funds year after year, as has been done in many districts dominated by conservative Republicans, will only make things worse. I am always concerned when conservative politicians talk about how “throwing money at the problem does not work.” Perhaps not, but neither does slashing funds. It is distressing to me when it is obvious that politicians lack an understanding of the historical context or the complexity of the problems being addressed. I also think that holding teachers accountable for circumstances they can’t control not only does not work, but also makes things worse. These topics and other school issues will be addressed in a follow up article later this summer. Authors notes: Statistics used in this summary are from the National Center of Educational Statistics, PEW Research Social and Demographic Trends, the US Department of Education, the US Department of Agriculture or The Civil Rights Project of UCLA, as quoted in a variety of stories in recent issues of NEA Today, The USA Today, or the Kansas City Star. Later this summer I will prepare a column that focuses on several other problematic issues that affect teaching and learning in many of our school systems today, including school funding, dissolving of inner city school districts, teacher accountability, mainstreaming, retention or passing of students, etc.
Don Breckon is a Platte County resident, former president of Park University and an occasional Citizen columnist. He is retired and lives in southern Platte County and remains active in civic affairs. Breckon may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.