Still separate and unequal

Rhena Catherine Jasey writes: Legal segregation is no more in the United States, but the de facto segregation of far too many American schools and whole school districts continues to this day. And yes, educational outcomes depend on more than what happens in schools, but nonetheless, the struggle for equity and fairness in public education is the preeminent civil rights issue of our time.

We face a basic question of justice and equity when it comes to the first building blocks of the educational process. The most vulnerable members of our society, children in our neediest areas, face a gross injustice when they go to school each day. The Campaign for Educational Equity, which is now studying New York City public schools, has identified several gaps in “availability of basic educational resources.” (These resources are those listed by Justice Leland DeGrasse in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York court case as necessary in order to “provide all students the opportunity for a sound basic education under the New York State Constitution.”) The Campaign’s research confirms what I have seen firsthand. The schools serving our poor urban populations face a chronic and pervasive lack of resources to support teacher development, to provide a safe learning environment for children, to support curriculum development and to provide basic technology. These problems are not isolated, but systemic.

Given all the variables at work in education, it is a real challenge to guarantee equal educational outcomes, and yet we must insist on a level playing field for all our children regardless of the circumstances of their birth. The fact is that many of our urban students require more support to have a fair opportunity to excel academically, and it is their basic civil right to expect that level of investment from society.

It is disappointing and surprising that so many people seem blind to the current state of affairs in public education. Many deny that the inequalities that exist between the children of middle and upper-middle class parents and their poorer counterparts is an issue of justice. Some claim that the issue is “cultural”, a capacious word used in this case to mean “futile.” Whatever the silent assumptions lurking in the background, the fact is that few not already engaged in addressing the problem feel much motivation to do anything about it. There is certainly no sense of urgency among the general public, or in our political class as a whole, about addressing the current state of public education in our cities.

It is instructive to compare this widespread apathy with the dramatic activism that in past decades overcame other societal injustices. We have seen, for example, remarkable shifts in public opinion, and in the application of our concepts of justice and equity, with respect to the handicapped. Our society and government have also reacted vigorously to the perils of second-hand smoke. We have come a long way in a short time, and spent billions and passed many laws, when it came to creating and enforcing new behavioral norms to protect the environment. The sense of the public welfare has been so strong in these areas that the public will has developed to pursue initiatives that benefit society notwithstanding the fact that the benefits may not correlate with the population making the bulk of the sacrifice. What has applied in those cases applies as much as, if not more, to the task of providing a more equitable educational experience for poor urban and rural children: Everyone would gain. This is not charity but self-interested social investment. How do we explain the lack of public ardor for fixing our educational inequalities? [Continue reading…]

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