In May, 60 years after the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional with its 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, a group called Journey for Justice Alliance sent civil rights complaints to the Justice and Education departments. It argued that too many failing public schools in black neighborhoods are being closed and replaced with charter schools.
The debate over racial inequality in education has been reduced to complaints that black children are victims of discrimination because they can’t walk to bad schools in their neighborhoods. “Children are being uprooted, shuffled into schools that are no better than the ones they came from,” says Judith Browne Dianis, a leader of one of the organizations in the Justice Alliance. The complaints meld perfectly with the views of the teachers’ unions. The teachers oppose closing neighborhood schools that operate under union contracts and oppose opening charter schools, which are typically non-unionized.
In the last decade, cities from New Orleans to Chicago and Newark have closed record numbers of neighborhood schools and invested money in charter schools. Charters can be located anywhere and draw students from across a city. The flight to charter schools conforms to the Brown ruling’s central premise: that students should be able to attend the best public schools regardless of income or race.
Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who won the Brown case and later became a Supreme Court justice, said the case was not really about having black and white children sitting next to each other. Its true purpose was to make sure that predominantly white and segregationist school officials would put maximum resources into giving every child, black or white, a chance to get a good education.
But now people described as liberal “activists” are filing complaints against closing bad neighborhood schools. They put more value on having a bad neighborhood school than getting a child into an excellent school. The charge that some charter schools are no better than the neighborhood schools being closed ignores the truth that some charter schools have produced better results. Also, parents have the choice to pull their children out of charter schools that do not help them.
Earlier this year, a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found neighborhood schools reinforcing a “double segregation” in which minority students remain isolated by race and income. That double burden leaves schools in poor neighborhoods with the burden of educating a student population with high levels of poverty, more health problems, more street violence and fewer positive role models.
In 2012 the same group reported that “teachers of all races viewed schools with high percentages of students of color and low-income students as less likely to have family and community support,” which are critical to the success of any school.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who supports legislation to expand funding for charter schools, recently noted that in the fall of this year the majority of American public school students will be non-white. Yet some minority parents and civil right groups are being used as props by teachers’ unions to oppose school choice by calling efforts to close failing neighborhood schools the “new Jim Crow.”
Ending racial and economic isolation of students is a sign of progress that is in the best tradition of a nation still struggling, 60 years after Brown, to offer every child a quality education.•