Monday, May 19, 2014

60th Anniversary of Brown and the Absolute Necessity of Public Schools

I was a high school sophomore, my sister a senior, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Brown vs. the Board of Education declaring “separate but equal” invalid.”  Because of my father’s death four years before, my sister and I received social security benefits.  Our mother worked a low-paying job, but we had public education. Both of us became valedictorians, and went on to a public community college. I eventually earned a Ph.D. An excellent public high school where all were included in a small city of 30,000 made that possible. Today that school is still excellent, open to all, but the state first cut 1 million from the school budget, then two million and this year 3 million more.

Brown opened the doors but there was resistance from the beginning. Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959, rather than integrate its schools, closed its entire public school system, creating private schools to educate its white children, supported by state and county tax funds. No provision was made for educating the country’s black children. Some students missed part or all of their education for five years.

Brown 60 years ago, 10 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, was a turning point towards dismantling Jim Crow.  In 1954 the white majority accepted white supremacy and racial bias; today the majority reject it and are appalled (surprised, calling it a “generational thing”) by racist remarks by an NBL owner. But asking if someone is a racist misses the deeper issues.

Between roughly 1965 and 1980, some progress was made in integration, mainly by court order, but “by all deliberate speed” was slow, and now has reversed. We see once again closing of public schools.  Although the “appearance is race neutral,” the reality is not, Attorney General Eric Holder has noted. The 49 elementary schools closed in Chicago were mostly black. Likewise in New Orleans and Newark and across the country school districts, counties and states, under the wording of “school choice,” are taking public funds and giving them to private school movements. The remaining schools in predominantly African-American, Hispanic and poor neighborhoods are labeled underachieving and subject to being closed next. Some poor neighborhoods have become school deserts. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says it’s de facto segregation , about housing, where people choose to live.  The problem is that some people have money to choose and many do not.  

It’s a matter of worth: some children being named--or forgotten, dismissed--as “worthless.” Economic inequality is defended on the belief that some children are worth more than others. Some say that children from poor families ought to clean their school buildings to work for their lunch. Apartheid thinking says, “You are not who we think should succeed in school.” This is directly contrary to our American promises and to our laws.

We need to strengthen public community schools as places for all children to learn together whatever their abilities, disabilities, social-economic, racial or ethnic background. Dismantling  public (“government”) schools hurts everyone. It will not do, for “my child” to have a “good” education, but not the child of my neighbor, next door, across town, across the country. As economic inequality grows, we become isolated and fear the neighbor.

There are of course examples of progress, where people in suburbs and cities have conscientiously joined together to cross racial and economic boundaries to create excellent multi-cultural schools. But still the opportunities are not equal.  One half  to 3/4 of African-American and Hispanic children attend schools in which the majority of students are classified as low income.
First Lady Michelle Obama speaking to Topeka high school graduates said, "I think it's fitting that we're celebrating this historic Supreme Court case tonight, not just because Brown started right here in Topeka. . . but because you all are the living, breathing legacy of this case." She added, “Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse.” She told them never to be afraid to talk about the issues, especially race, because it is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of one of the plaintiffs said this weekend that Brown opened doors but that we didn’t have reconciliation.  Where’s the courage to have reconciliation among the races? 

Wartburg Seminary where I teach is a Lutheran Christian graduate school. Some "Christian" schools contribute to segregation or exclude children with disabilities.  However we ELCA Lutherans do not promote separatism and welcome people with special needs.  Our Lutheran (ELCA) church body has a social statement, “Our Calling in Education,” which makes a strong case for supporting public schools, even while having many Lutheran pre-schools, day schools, some high schools and many church-related colleges.  We realize the necessity of also contributing to the tax base for education for all, not just "our own." 

I, a young white woman 60 years ago, rejoiced at the passing of Brown: separate is not equal.  The challenge is greater today: excellent public education for all everywhere.