“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
— Nelson Mandela
“The direction in which education starts a person will determine their future in life.”
Not long ago I came across an opinion piece by the editorial board of ECM, a local company that publishes a variety of community newspapers throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This particular editorial focused in part on the critical need to invest in our community’s youth as a tool to combat poverty.
The authors cite studies that suggest how successful educational initiatives could make a substantial economic impact in low-income communities while reducing poverty, the academic achievement gap, and youth contact with the criminal justice system.
As I read this insightful commentary, I began to consider the current state of public education in the United States and its inextricable link to poverty and the de facto segregation that persists in so many American cities today. After the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson mandate of “separate but equal,” many anticipated a sea change that would significantly enhance the educational opportunities for African American youth.
The Brown case did yield an immediate impact, and today we honor both the courage and legacies of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, Vivian Malone, James Hood, and numerous others. Nonetheless, some scholars and activists have frequently alluded to the unintended consequences of the Brown decision such as the decline of several high-performing African American public high schools, including the legendary Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1870 and later named in honor of the prolific African American writer, Dunbar High was America’s first public high school for Black students and was renowned for its academic excellence for more than a century. However, since the desegregation strategies that followed Brown, Dunbar’s stature as an academic powerhouse diminished, and in recent years it has risked closure due to substandard performance.
The late historian Harold Cruse discussed what he viewed as the failure of desegregation in his 1987 work Plural but Equal. In this book, which remains fiercely debated by Black scholars to this day, Cruse laid much of the blame on African American leadership.
He argued that Black leaders did not pursue adequate “programmatic and organizational” measures to help foster and sustain opportunities for all African Americans following the Brown decision. As Herbert Hill notes in his review of the book, Cruse chided the leadership, most notably the NAACP, “for its simplistic perception of the racial situation and for its failure to recognize the inadequacy of integration as a panacea.”
Cruse always maintained that he was not advocating a separatist ideology but thought it shortsighted of others not to recognize the intransigence of societal, structural and institutional racism in spite of changes in the law and school busing initiatives. The dreadful irony of it all is that in 2015, a multitude of American cities and their schools are more segregated and unequal than they have been in decades.
This trend has been in place for some time as has been examined in many texts including Alphonso Pinkney’s The Myth of Black Progress, Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, and Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well and Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Perhaps no one has documented the startling educational inequities better than teacher and activist Jonathan Kozol.
Kozol has authored more than a dozen books on the relationship between poverty, race and public education, including Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. Among the many noteworthy issues Kozol raises in his work is the amount of money that is spent educating White students in America versus students of color.
This is a subject that the Center for American Progress recently tackled with its comprehensive 2012 report titled Unequal Education. The study demonstrates how American public schools drastically underinvest in students of color as opposed to White students. The study also notes that this inequity arises not only from differences in property-tax funding in impoverished communities versus affluent ones, but also due to a federal loophole that often results in racial inequity even within school districts.
According to the report, the “comparability loophole,” as it is known, “allows districts to claim they are providing comparable services to Title I schools (with large concentrations of low-income students) and non-Title I schools even if all of their most expensive (and likely most experienced) teachers may be clustered in non-Title I schools.” The Center for American Progress contends that this loophole must be eliminated as it undermines our educational system and perpetuates inequality along racial lines.
Still, as has already been suggested, legislation alone is not enough to solve this problem. It is clear that the way schools are funded is inherently unfair to impoverished communities, particularly students of color. At what point does it simply become a matter of will? Why do we seem disinterested in providing equitable educational opportunities to all America’s children regardless of race and class?
The unequal nature of our public educational systems is one of the most substantial causes of poverty in America today. Fair and unrestricted access to quality education is perhaps the most potent instrument at our disposal in the quest to end poverty.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.