64 Years After Brown v Board of Education
In 1951 Oliver Brown sought to enroll his third-grade daughter Linda at a neighborhood elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. African-American, Mr. Brown was unhappy that his daughter had to travel to a segregated black school while her neighborhood school was located only seven blocks from her home. As Ms. Brown later told a reporter, “the walk was very frightening to me and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry.” But her all-white neighborhood school refused to enroll Ms. Brown. Defiant, Mr. Brown joined in suing the school district and prevailed in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were inherently unequal.
Today, African American students in California deal with a different form of inequality. Generally they don’t perform as well as other students, especially when they are also from low-income families:
That’s despite California spending $95 billion this year on K-12 education, more than $16,000 per student:
But only half that money reaches classrooms, in significant part because billions of dollars are being diverted to unfunded pensions. That leaves too little for current teachers and specialists, which is disproportionately detrimental to low-income students who live in districts in which parents cannot afford to provide that support. The problem is exacerbated in mostly urban school districts that also cover health care costs for retired employees.
Another problem is that under-performing teachers are spared from dismissal and pay isn’t differentiated for teachers in high poverty schools. Low income students often need higher performing teachers but school districts in California are prevented from dismissing poorly performing staff and employing the carrots needed to field enough higher performing teachers and paying them more for taking on more challenging environments.
Another problem is elected officials just paying lip service to these issues. As illustrated here, the most progressive counties in the state are among the worst performers. Needless to say, there’s nothing progressive about denying quality education to students in order to placate special interests.
The California State Legislature can fix these problems. With just 62 votes and approval from the governor they could (i) enable school districts to modify pensions for years not yet worked and suspend benefit increases for retirees until pension funds are better funded, (ii) permit school districts to differentiate pay and support for teachers, (iii) stop granting permanent employment, and (iv) permit principals to terminate under-performing employees. They should also encourage school districts to utilize Covered California (the state’s health care exchange) for providing health care coverage for retired school district employees.
This week will mark 50 years since the assassination of the most courageous American political leader of my lifetime, Martin Luther King. No doubt we will hear plenty of words from California’s legislators in honor of Dr. King. It’s time 62 of them honored him with actions that would provide African American and other students with the quality educations they deserve.