Education remains the key
important victory in the battle for civil rights was the 1954 U.S.
Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The court held
that segregated public education is inherently unequal and therefore
unconstitutional. This case sounded the death knell of the “separate
but equal” doctrine that had been the law of the land since the court’s
decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
appropriate that such a pivotal event involved education. From the end
of slavery, African Americans understood that their progress depended
upon educational achievement. In the South, farmhands could be seen
reviewing their McGuffey Readers even as they held the plow.
Academic progress remained an important objective, but racial
discrimination in employment was discouraging. Black graduates of Ivy
League colleges often had to settle for jobs as postal clerks or
Pullman porters. Nonetheless, many talented blacks persevered.
Recent developments have raised serious questions about the adequacy of
secondary education and its impact on black progress. In earlier times,
it was quite enough for high school graduates to attain basic reading
and math skills. There were numerous jobs in manufacturing and
agriculture that required little more formal education. Employers would
teach new laborers what they needed to know to do the job.
Times have changed. Jobs in the age of technology and communications
require much more intensive education in math, science and language
skills. Countries elsewhere in the global economy have recognized the
emerging opportunities and have upgraded their education systems to
meet the challenge. However, in many places in this country the focus
has been on dysfunctional urban public schools and racial disparities
in educational results.
Solutions to the education problem have been impaired by the archaic
thinking of political conservatives. They believe the states’ rights
position that public education is solely within the purview of the
individual states. There was even an effort to eliminate the federal
Department of Education. However, new leadership should reconfirm that
strong federal oversight of public education is essential today to
“promote the general welfare,” as stated in the Preamble to the
Under the states’ rights approach, the cost of public education has
depended primarily upon real estate taxes. This funding source has
proven to be inadequate in cities and towns with little industry and
high unemployment. The case of Claremont v. New Hampshire has
demonstrated the inadequacy of the present system for funding education.
Competing countries are producing more highly educated high school
graduates because they have longer school days and less time off in the
summer. American public schools have not adopted the model of foreign
schools because of the increased cost, despite its demonstrated
At elite boarding schools, which spend three or more times the cost per
student than public schools, students remain in a learning environment
all day. Consequently, children of affluent families have an
extraordinary educational advantage over children from working class
families. While it is totally appropriate for well-to-do families to be
supportive of the educational needs of their children, society must
intervene to provide a level academic playing field for others.
The battle over education has changed from the racial discrimination
that existed before the Brown case. Now the fight is to revise the
concept of public education so that school systems have adequate
resources to pay teachers for longer days without imposing an excessive
burden on homeowners. It is, indeed, a civil right for American
children to be adequately educated to compete in the world.
“We must never forget that we are raising the next generation of leaders.”