Friday, May 14, 2004


In good news, there was reportedly enough discussion on the Unicameral floor to show legislative intent for a constitutional definition of educational equal opportunity that should be strong enough to battle back that nasty lawsuit by the Omaha Public Schools and others to get more money from the state aid formula for disadvantaged students.

Money is not the answer. It's really not.

But in bad news, a lack of perceived equality from the attitudes and methods that are apparently going on in our public schools is a nationwide problem, at least according to our country's No. 1 educator.

Here's his take on the matter. Whether or not you agree that federal education legislation is the answer -- and I don't -- you have to agree that it's a sad state of affairs that, so many years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools still aren't giving all of our kids an equal shot at the American dream.


Educational equality eludes us, even now

By Rod Paige

May 14, 2004

I went to elementary and secondary schools in rural Mississippi in the
1940s and early '50s. Our schools were in a constant state of disrepair.
The only textbooks that came our way were hand-me-downs. This was not an
environment that encouraged black children to dream of opportunities, let
alone higher education. But my parents were determined that my sisters and
I go to college, and their resolve rubbed off on me. Back then, there were
not as many options as there are today - especially for a black man in the
South. I was fortunate to be admitted to Jackson State University, a
historically black college in Mississippi.

I was a junior in college 50 years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court sent
shock waves through this country with its decision in Brown vs. Board of
Education. The justices declared clearly that the doctrine of "separate but
equal" was unconstitutional. After the decision, the process of
desegregating schools began.

There was jubilation on my campus, the feeling that a world of opportunity
would open to us. Sadly, looking back, although Brown made it illegal to
officially segregate schools, many of today's schools are not integrated,
and the disparity in access to high-quality education remains. In fact,
most urban schools are overwhelmingly "majority minority." The difference
is that in this day and age, the segregation is voluntary.

If we ever hope to eliminate racism, the best way is through higher
standards, better teachers, real accountability and, ultimately,
educational opportunity.

I recognize that I was one of the lucky ones in that pre-Brown era. Both of
my parents were educators. I worry that many of today's youths don't see
education as the path to a better future. As several African-American
scholars have noted, many of today's black youths see education as a "white

That notion is painfully evident: Today, only one in six African-Americans
can read proficiently upon leaving high school. The achievement gap in
reading between blacks and whites is staggering. Nationally, at the
fourth-grade level, the gap is 28 percentage points. Other indicators show
similar trends: Black students in the K-12 system have almost triple the
rate of disciplinary problems (measured by suspensions) as their white
peers. Blacks earn college degrees at half the rate of whites.

What a travesty. But equality of opportunity must be more than just a
statement of law; it must be a matter of fact. Then and now, our work
begins in our educational institutions.

We still have a two-tiered public education system. Some fortunate students
receive a world-class education. But millions are mired in mediocrity,
denied a high-quality education. Most are children of color. This is not
the legacy of Brown we imagined.

Some still believe we can fix our public education system by spending more
money. But we already spend more per pupil on K-12 education than any other
country except Switzerland. The issue is how the money is being invested.
Historically, accountability in our education system has been absent.

Two years ago, the president and Congress, in a show of strong
bipartisanship, passed a sweeping law that challenges the status quo. The
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is the logical next step to closing the
racial achievement gap in education after Brown ended segregation and the
1964 Civil Rights Act promised an equitable society.

With NCLB, the achievement gap is closing. A recent study by the Council of
Great City Schools found that the achievement gaps in both reading and math
in urban schools between African-Americans and whites, and Hispanics and
whites, are narrowing. Now, every state has an accountability plan, parents
are newly empowered, and every student will be taught by a highly qualified

Some have resisted this law. But Brown also met resistance. To those of us
who grew up during those times, the chorus sounds familiar. Racial equality
cannot exist as long as there is an educational achievement gap. We must
make our schools equitable in order to make our society and culture
equitable. Brown's legacy should be equality of opportunity. We must
achieve this goal for the sake of all our children.

Rod Paige is the U.S. secretary of Education.

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