‘Education Remains the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’
Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
On this anniversary, we celebrate the progress we have made as a nation in bringing educational equity and opportunity to millions of students in America. Our nation’s high school graduation rate is at a record high and dropout rates are at historic lows. And more African American and Latino students are going to college than ever before. But we still have much further to go to make real the promise of an equitable and excellent education for every student in our nation.
With the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board, the court made it clear that “separate and unequal” is unconstitutional. Yet, more than six decades later, we can look across our country and see communities that are more segregated by race — and by class — than they were decades ago.
We can look across our public schools and see that we have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps, especially for young people of color and other historically underserved students.
And we can look across our classrooms and see that we continue to offer our most vulnerable students less — less access to high expectations and safe learning environments; less access to outstanding teachers and challenging coursework; and less access to the services and supports that these, and all, students need to thrive.
Indeed, this challenge we face is not new, but it is as critical for us to address now as ever before, especially when a majority of students in our public schools are low-income students and students of color.
As President Lyndon Baines Johnson stated more than 50 years ago, “[O]ur aim must be higher; our reach must be farther; our pace must be faster. Our society and its members must aim for, and reach toward, the goals and the values of excellence.”
So we have urgent work to do as a country to accelerate progress for our students and to truly provide them with excellence and equity in our public schools. But I believe we stand better positioned to do this work because of our new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
The law reauthorizes the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) signed by President Johnson in 1965. ESEA was a civil rights law then, and ESSA is a civil rights law now.
It is both our responsibility and moral obligation to build on the civil rights legacy of ESEA by implementing ESSA with a laser focus on ensuring that low-income, high-need students receive the resources they need and that all children — especially the most vulnerable — are provided with the world-class education they deserve.
And to truly fulfill Brown v. Board, we also must commit ourselves to the work of increasing diversity, with an understanding of its benefits. Diversity offers the kind of contact and meaningful connections with people from various backgrounds that have been shown to boost students’ empathy and to reduce bias. Students’ experiences in diverse classrooms can positively impact their achievement and expose them to different perspectives and cultures, which can help prepare them to contribute to our society and our democracy. Indeed, we must make it a priority to ensure that all our children — including White students — regularly learn next to classmates who are different from themselves and encounter educators and leaders of color in their schools.
Especially at a time when the federal government is disinvesting in our public schools and withdrawing from accountability, it is up to states and districts to step up and take the lead. Community and faith leaders, civil rights groups, parents and families, policymakers and administrators, businesses and nonprofits, and educators and education advocates also all have a role to play in this important work.
Everyone with a stake in the success of our children must reaffirm our collective commitment to providing the highest quality education to all students — regardless of race, background, or circumstance — so they may succeed in college and careers and prosper in life. On this anniversary of the historic Brown V. Board decision and every day, education remains the civil rights issue of our time.