As the first African-American to serve as the CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association (CSBA), one of the nation’s oldest (at 83 years) and largest school board associations, I find special meaning in the 60th anniversary today of the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. My educational and professional achievements stand, in part, on the foundation and sacrifices made by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and because of this ruling that outlawed “separate but equal” facilities for students in public schools and reaffirmed the important role of education in our society.
The 1954 Brown decision, which celebrates its 60th anniversary on May 17th, is arguably one of the most important Supreme Court rulings of the 20th century. It struck a fatal blow to legal segregation in America, and simultaneously elevated the notion that education could be the “great equalizer” for our nation’s students regardless of their race or socioeconomic background. The Brown decision declared that public education is the foundation of good citizenship and the principal instrument that prepares children for success in life – making access to good schools “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
This proclamation still rings true today.
Since Brown, many things have changed in our educational system and society, but unfortunately some things are still the same. Many of our schools and communities remain segregated, albeit for a multiplicity of reasons. A recent report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that nationwide, black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.
Students of color are disproportionately suspended from schools and significant achievement gaps persist between African American and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts. In addition, some in our society continue to struggle with the issue of race, and the idea of investing in students of color to provide them with an equal opportunity to learn. As such, the equity dreams manifested in the Brown decision are still just that – dreams – and require much more effort from us all if they are to be realized.
We commemorate the Brown decision at a time when there is a resurgence in discussions about equity, opportunity and accountability as school districts throughout California implement the first year of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). All students deserve a chance to succeed, and LCFF presents a renewed opportunity to focus on improving student outcomes and increasing communication between our schools and community.
Today, as we continue to create a better educational system that truly embraces the promise of opportunity for all students, it is critical that educators and policymakers (including school board members) understand how the actions of our predecessors – as well as their lack of action – impacted a generation of students 60 years ago, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
I believe that one of the truths embedded in the Brown decision is that if we believe every child can learn, then we must act “with all deliberate speed” to give them an equal opportunity to learn. Together we must work to understand the challenges facing students so we can identify and invest in the programs and resources necessary to meet their needs and close the achievement gap.
When this occurs, we produce great Americans and expand our intellectual, political, entrepreneurial, scientific and cultural net worth in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
The next Dr. Charles Drew, U.S. Senator Dennis Chavez, astronaut Mae Jemison, Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Steven Chu, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, or President Barack Obama is sitting in a California classroom. It is up to us to ensure that the decisions we make create opportunities for all of these students to succeed and to live up to their potential.
Without question, we are a stronger, better educated, and I would argue more tolerant nation 60 years after the Brown decision, yet our work is not done. So, let’s honor the struggles and contributions of our Civil Rights heroes like Justice Marshall, and by remembering this important anniversary and committing ourselves to ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to learn in a resource-rich school environment that does not discriminate, but uplifts students to be the future leaders we know they can become.
Vernon M. Billy is CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association.
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