65 years after Brown v Board we must uphold our duty to protect school diversity and enforce civil rights

This post is a joint collaboration between Lily and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes.

Sixty-five years ago today, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place.” This decision confirmed what the thirteen parent plaintiffs in Topeka, Kansas knew to be true – that every child deserves equity.
With this sentence, Warren, and the unanimous Court behind him intended to solidify once and for all that all students, no matter their race, had a right to the same education under a shared roof – that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was inherently unequal, unfair, and unconstitutional.

Thelma Dewitty, left, hired in 1947 as the first black teacher in Seattle Public Schools, reads to her second-grade students at Cooper Elementary in West Seattle. By Judy Bentley, Special to The Seattle Times

It was these words from Justice Warren that changed the course of history and opened the door of opportunity to generations of students of color, successfully narrowing the achievement gap. It was these words that enabled both of us, two women of color, to become teachers – in classrooms with students of all races. This decision enabled us to become a Member of the United States Congress and a leader of the largest labor union in the United States, respectively.

 

Embracing Brown v Board 65 years later: View our special coverage

We have seen, both from our desks as students and from our white boards as teachers, what fulfilling the promise of Brown looks like throughout the country. We have seen children learning, growing, and achieving alongside each other, reaping the benefits of a quality, equal public education. We have benefited from this promise; we have also sought to further it.

But for too many children across the country, the promise of Brown is still just that – a promise. It is one they read about in their history books but do not see in the world around them. Each day, our nation walks farther astray from the path towards equality that we set out on with the Brown decision 65 years ago. Public schools are now more segregated by race and class than at any time since the 1960s. The equality and inclusion that Brown was meant to guarantee is not the reality our children are living. It is not the promise our country made to them in Brown.

It is on us, then, to fulfill the promise of Brown to the students of today and tomorrow. It is on us to uphold to truths set forth by the Supreme Court 65 years ago.

We must fight to re-enact efforts to increase diversity and reduce discriminatory policies that disproportionately impacted students of color in our schools. Our government must protect justice in our educational system, investigating every civil rights abuse that manifests itself in our schools. There are nearly 51 million children in public schools across the country – 51 million reasons to make our public schools more equitable and just. For them, we must recognize that Brown is not a self-fulfilling promise – it is one that requires our action each and every day. And we must act.

A system that affords opportunity only to those students whose parents have the capacity to be their advocates – whose parents can fight for access to better schools – leaves an unconscionable number of students behind. What about the student whose parents have been and continue to fight historically harmful and discriminatory policies across public institutions such as education, housing, healthcare, economy? The student whose parents’ wages don’t allow social mobility, or who are unable to drive to parent teacher conferences, or sign a reading log? What about the student whose mother is struggling with addiction? The student whose father is in prison? The student in foster care or a student with special needs? Our leaders, our government needs to be advocates for these children in their stead.

Unfortunately, some do not understand that as a country we have a responsibility to provide a great neighborhood public school for every student in every ZIP code and that improving our public schools requires investing in them – not taking away precious resources. The voucher scheme proposed by Betsy DeVos in Washington and Georgia politicians will divert scarce funding away from neighborhood public schools – where 90 percent of children attend – and give it away to private schools, which aren’t accountable to taxpayers.

 

I remember: Stories of educators when Brown became the law of the land

In reflecting on this anniversary, we think back to scenes just after Brown, when Abon and Lucillie Bridges fought for their daughter Ruby to have the same access to quality schools and instruction as her white peers – watching her walk every day to school escorted by U.S. Marshalls. We think back to when the parents of the Little Rock Nine had to summon the quiet bravery to watch their babies walk through menacing mobs, suffering through violence and harassment – just to receive a decent education.

These intrepid parents and their heroic children fought for equality at great cost. We have a moral obligation to honor their sacrifices. We have a moral obligation to re-prioritize the call of Brown, and uphold our duty to protect school diversity and enforce civil rights. We must advance policy that promises all students, of every background, in every school district, a quality public education. Education has to work for everyone, or it does not work for anyone.

All of us have the responsibility to ask the following question: is this the education that I would want for my child? And if we can not answer yes to that question every single time – if we can not ensure that every child has the same access to opportunity and quality education that we would want for our children, then we need to do better.

We need to elect courageous leaders that align with our values, insist that every federal court nominee understands and promises to uphold and protect Brown, demand that our Department of Education fights for each and every student, and rise up when we see injustice in our schools and communities. Elections may have consequences, but children should never be part of those consequences.

Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board: From School and Housing Policies to the Courts

Jahana Hayes is the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and U.S. Member of Congress representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District
Lily Eskelsen García is a Utah Teacher of the Year and President of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest professional association

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