As the nation commemorates the 60th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is fitting that the Notebook is celebrating an anniversary of its own.
The Notebook first published in 1994, the same year that the Commonwealth Court decided the long-running desegregation case brought by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission against the School District of Philadelphia.
At the time, courts were still tackling racial integration and busing issues while trying to determine the full meaning of Brown. In Philadelphia, about 78 percent of the city’s 200,000 students were Black, Hispanic, and Asian, while 22 percent were White. More than half attended what were called “racially isolated” schools, where 90 percent of students were of the same race.
Philadelphia’s record showed large gaps in test results and graduation rates that fell along racial lines. Racially isolated schools also experienced higher teacher turnover; deteriorated facilities; insufficient expenditures on educational improvement programs; and other deficiencies.
Students’ educational needs had not been met.
Based on those findings, Commonwealth Court refocused the case from desegregation to the racial disparities in student academic achievement. It ruled that the District had failed or refused to provide an equal educational opportunity for Black and Hispanic students attending racially isolated schools.
It ordered the District to focus on eliminating those disparities and direct more resources to those schools. Among other remedies, it had to develop curriculum standards, implement professional development for teachers, and provide full-day kindergarten for all Black and Hispanic students.
Since then, much has transpired in the field of public education, locally and nationally.
The federal government has stepped up its attempts to close this achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind law and Race to the Top initiative heightened the focus on test scores. Low-achieving schools are being closed or turned around by management and consulting firms. Charters, cyber schools, and other choices are proliferating. States are implementing federal Common Core curriculum standards to improve achievement.
Progress has been made in graduation rates and other areas, including needed increases in parental involvement.
But studies show that schools are becoming re-segregated across the nation. We have yet to solve the racial disparities in academic achievement.
Since 2010, President Obama has established an Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and another for African Americans. Their tasks include finding ways to improve students’ access to high-quality learning opportunities, increasing the number of Black and Hispanic teachers, and boosting high school graduation rates, college attainment, and college completion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney general has issued guidelines designed to end the excessive suspensions of Black and Hispanic students and disrupt the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
And this year, the president announced his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, designed to help every young man of color break the barriers he faces and get ahead in life. A summit on the education of African American students will be held in Philadelphia this fall.
We can safely conclude that the goal of providing equal educational opportunity to all children has not yet been met. Our governments and communities must act now to resolve this problem; the well-being of our children and the nation is at stake.
We must never lose sight of the admonition in Brown:
“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. … [I]t is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity … is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”