• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2003
Editor’s Note: The following are opening remarks of one of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.
We have a powerful purpose – to reaffirm a promise. In issuing the unanimous Brown decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Almost 50 years later, the promise of Brown remains unmet. In fact, the promise of Brown may be slipping further out of reach.
According to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, public schools in the United States are resegregating. As we began the new millennium, 40 percent of Black students attended schools that were 90 percent to 100 percent Black. This is up from 32 percent in 1988. In nine out of 10 of these schools the majority of children were poor. This is not the promise of Brown (IDRA, 2003).
Latino children are the most segregated, and they attend the poorest schools. They receive the poorest preparation by the least trained teachers and have little access to rigorous curriculum that would prepare them for college. This is not the promise of Brown.
Seventy-five percent of the 4.5 million students who speak a language other than English have a seat in the classroom but are left out of the class because of English-only policies that are concerned with politics instead of learning (Kindler, 2002). This is not the promise of Brown, of Mendez, of Lau, or of Plylar. This is not the promise we have made to children.
So, how do we make good on this promise? It seems to me that we must secure three foundations: We must keep the public in public education; we must press for accountable schools; and we must fund schools for the common good.
Public Schools Must Stay Public
Americans support public schools. Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for public schools. But there has always been a vocal minority that has fought the integration that comes with public schools.
As public education was first conceived and began to take shape in our country, various groups raised opposition: Why did everyone need to go to school? Why did they need an education? Wouldn’t ex-slaves and their children be more comfortable in their own schools? Why spend money on immigrants who didn’t even speak English? Well… OK… maybe spend a little bit of money, but only enough to keep them out of the streets. But surely, those children were not going to attend school with our children. And so it went.
After the Brown decision, in the Jim Crow south, White institutions dragged their feet, and private White academies became commonplace. Separate but equal would, in this way, stay in place. Today, private schools funded by public sources are a reality in some states.
We seem to be moving from dual schools to dual systems, one public, one private – with our public money diverted to privatizing through vouchers, private charters, home schools, virtual schools and tax credits.
At the same time, I see an emerging pattern of large private foundation dollars going into public schools not to encourage innovation and bold action but to replace diminishing public dollars.
Many countries already have dual systems – one well-funded private system for children of the rich, the privileged and the few deserving poor, and another separate government system for the poor, the disenfranchised, and anyone who cannot get their children out of public schools. We should not follow their lead.
The United States is still uniquely committed to one system that prepares us all for living in a great democracy. We should preserve this commitment.
It is not OK to turn our public schools into poorly-funded government schools; public schools belong to all of us. It is not OK to turn our public schools into private schools, accountable to private boards; public schools are accountable to all of us. It is not OK turn to our public schools into charity schools; public schools are civic institutions, a central part of our social contract.
So, as we move forward, keeping the public in public schools is essential. To work in the public interest, a system must be responsive and responsible to the public it serves. This brings us to the second foundation: we must press for accountable schools.
Schools Must be Accountable
There is much discussion today about whether the accountability required by the No Child Left Behind Act is about responsibility or about blame. Many have suggested that the pressure put on schools is causing more problems than it is solving.
There are two important things to remember: The first is that in an environment of blame, nothing gets done. The second is that accountability pressures have not caused high dropout rates or low achievement.
In fact, before accountability ruled the day, Latino and African American children were systematically pushed out of schools and consistently undereducated to an even greater extent than today.
The bottom line is: schools are responsible for the education of children – for all children, be they Black, Brown, White, poor, rich, female, male, disabled, non-disabled, English-speaking or not.
Many schools throughout the country, some represented in this room, have demonstrated that a “no excuses,” “all children can learn” approach produces results. Tests can play an important role in this kind of school accountability system – one that accepts the responsibility that schools have toward children and communities.
But school accountability should not and need not mean that high-stakes decisions in children’s lives are made on the basis of tests nor that tests dictate what children learn.
Current federal policy requires that 95 percent of children be tested. This was intended to assure that groups of children are not systematically excluded from the tests in order to make schools look good. This is not a bad thing.
In Texas, as a matter of fact, the disaggregation of data by racial and ethnic group did much to emphasize that schools are responsible for educating Black and Latino children. However, these provisions also encourage using tests to punish children who are not being taught.
When water quality experts test a river, they do it with just a sampling of drops. States could continue to measure their schools’ ability to educate different groups of children and could do it more efficiently and inexpensively by testing a stratified sample of students.
This is not allowable under current federal policy, but it is the right direction, and one we should pursue.
Accountability, then, is a foundation of quality schools that work for all children. Accountability encourages and ensures public support.
Schools Must be Funded Equitably
A third and last foundation that we must secure to make good on our promise to children is to fund schools for the common good. In this time of budget deficits, budget shortfalls and fiscal austerity, the way we fund schools is once again cast into the limelight.
IDRA was formed 30 years ago in order to address this critical issue. Working closely with Al Kaufmann, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a small group of school districts, and others who believed as we did, we successfully changed school funding in Texas.
Before 1995, some of the wealthiest school systems in Texas spent $10,000 per student and had low school tax rates. Poorer systems could only spend $3,000 per pupil and had much higher taxes. This meant that the neighborhood in which you happened to live dictated the quality of your child’s schooling (IDRA, 2002).
In Texas, we have progressed from having one of the most unequal funding systems in the nation to a funding system that is considered one of the most equitable.
Still, there are those who want to turn the clock back on equity and return to the “good old days” – the days of “haves” and “have nots.”
People sometimes mistakenly call Texas’ recapture program, “Robin Hood.” Unfortunately, the “Robin Hood” label has stuck, encouraging stereotypes of needy Mexicans and Blacks benefiting from what rightfully belongs to others.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is that recapture helps 95 percent of school districts in the state. If recapture had been eliminated during the last legislative session, 867 school districts would have immediately lost more than $940 million in funding or about a $230 loss per student.
By contrast, the 116 wealthiest districts in the state would have received $1,969 per student. Texas does not have Robin Hood, Texas has fair funding for the common good.
Today, the Highland Park school district has a property wealth per weighted student of $1,042,419 compared to only $11,735 for the Boles school district in East Texas.
If the Texas Legislature, in the special session planned for this spring, eliminates the recapture provisions of the Texas school finance system, a wealthy minority of districts will profit, while the majority of school districts, 888 to be exact, and the majority of children, more than 90 percent of Texas students, will suffer.
In many states today there is a move afoot to address questions of adequacy rather than equity of funding. I am afraid that it will again be Latinos and minorities who will be educated at minimally adequate levels, while the rich and privileged can again tax themselves at lower rates and generate and keep substantial revenues.
Recently, an appellate court in New York ruled (and was later reversed) that the state constitution only obligates the government to offer a modest level of education to its children (Gehring, 2002; Karlin, 2002).
Therefore, this thinking goes, it is OK for minority children in New York City to receive a minimal education with minimally adequate funding, while non-minority children in Upstate New York receive more funding and a more than adequate education.
Justice Lerner wrote: “The skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote and serve on a jury are imparted between grades eight and nine.”
He went on to write that “society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may be very low-level.” High school graduation, he concluded, was therefore unnecessary for everyone.
So adequacy is a dead end, it is not a path to equity. We need fair funding for the common good.
Keeping the Promise of Brown
How can we together create a future in which the color of a child’s skin, the language a child speaks and the side of town that a child comes from are no longer barriers to a great education and a good life?
I believe that we can make good on the promise to children by building on these foundations: keeping the public in public education, pressing for accountable schools, and funding schools for the common good.
Why is this so important? Two years ago, on September 11 we were jolted for a brief moment into a profound and unmistakable sense of “we.” People reached for each other across color lines, language barriers, and class boundaries.
Public schools as civic institutions that work for everyone may yet make permanent that which felt so right.
Gehring, J. “N.Y. Appeals Court Rebuffs Lower Court’s School Aid Ruling,” Education Week (July 10, 2002).
Intercultural Development Research Association. 30 Years of Advocacy in Education for All Children (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2003).
Intercultural Development Research Association. Fair Funding for Texas School Children (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2002).
Karlin, R. “‘Burger’ skills case inflames advocates: Appeals ruling extends debate on minimum education standards,” Times Union (July 22, 2002).
Kindler, A. Survey of the States’ Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services: 2000-2001 Summary Report (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs, 2002).
Adapted from the speech presented at the conference, “The Latino Pursuit for Excellence and Equity in U.S. Public Schools: Mendez (1946) and Brown (1954) – Today and Beyond,” held in San Antonio in October. Focusing on education of Latino students, the event was sponsored by Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Brown vs. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission, and the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. See Page 3 for more information.
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]