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Civil Rights and School Reform Movements
Social movements are an integral component of society. They are meant to bring about change in the accepted norms or social configuration. It is a manifestation of collective behavior whose purpose is transformation, either personal or social. Educational reform is not a new concept; it dates back to the advent of public schools and has continued through to the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The ideal educational system is one where the child is seen as unique and the mission of the school is to allow the potential for each to come to fruition. The Civil Rights Movement and the school reform movement have in common the issue of segregation and equal opportunity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of tyranny, of which the people and government of the United States are guilty. He stated openly, "the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land" (I have a Dream Speech, Internet source).
King had a tendency to bring together moral principle, social facts, and their implications for society in general and the Black race in particular. He was able to combine the techniques of moral persuasion and facts of social position in a manner that lent itself to increasing the legitimacy and the effectiveness of his cause. His 'cause' was equality. Why, then, would Jonathan Kozol, in his book, Savage Inequalities, claim that Martin Luther King's legacy has died in our urban centers?
In an interview with the Christian Century, Kozol states, "The greatest difference between now and 1964, when I began teaching, is that public policy has pretty much eradicated the dream of Martin Luther King. In fact, the public schools today are every bit as segregated as they were in 1964.... there is a general sense that society no longer intends to bring black and Hispanic children into the mainstream of society" (Anonymous 541). Geographic isolation of low-income urban blacks from white-dominated neighborhoods has led to yet another aspect of the 'victim mentality': a multiplicity of obvious discrepancies in the social and economic realities between blacks and whites.
Blacks and other minorities have become the 'disadvantaged' as well as the disenfranchised through a lack of economic mobility that is social and physical. This is especially true of the school systems where segregation is alive and well. In the urban schools Kozol visited, 95 to 99% of the students were non-white. The fact of ghetto education as a permanent American reality appeared to be accepted. The nation, he contends, has turned its back, morally if not yet legally, on the legal precedence of Brown v. Board of Education. When asked if race is the decisive factor in the poor condition of his school, the principal of an elementary school in New York replied, "This would not happen to white children." A student in Camden declares, "So long as there are no white children in our school, we're going to be cheated. That's America. That's how it is."
At one point, Kozol asks a teacher whether education has returned to the ideas of 100 years ago when 'separate but equal' was the 'in' political phrase and she replies, "It is separate. That's for sure.... Would you want to tell the children it is equal?" (PG) Money, materials and opportunity are the foundation of what Kozol proposes as changes that will enable the poverty level student to receive an equal education. School Boards and legislators feel that by offering the "school of choice" to poor minorities they are providing equal opportunity.
Among the many elements of change that King proposed was the Poor People's Campaign, a "contemporary social and economic Bill of Rights." that would ensure "full emancipation and equality of Negroes and the poor." He proposed that all men should have the opportunity for decent incomes, education, housing, and full employment. He talked about the concept of rights based on the principle of equality and how the Black man had been denied those rights for too long.
In 1951 the issue of educational equality came to the attention of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas in Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP represented the interests of Linda Brown, a black third grader from Topeka who had to walk more than a mile through a dangerous area to get to the all black school. She lived just seven blocks from a white school.
The Court ruled in favor of the school district and upheld the ruling of 'separate but equal' that was determined by the earlier case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The case made it to the Supreme court where, on May 17, 1954 the decision of the Supreme court overturned the earlier ruling, concluding that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment" (Brown v. Board of Education Internet source). Their decision began the process of desegregation in America's schools but did not give a deadline nor pertain to any public institution other than schools.
Economic inequity, which goes hand in hand with racial segregation, is the second major cause of the dual school system. This inequity has its roots in what Kozol calls "the arcane machinery by which we finance public education,": the property tax. The revenue from poorer neighborhoods that is available for education is obviously much less than what would be available from affluent neighborhoods. In addition, these same schools are the ones with a much higher student population. This results in an unequal distribution of funds per child between the poorer, urban school districts and the affluent suburbs. Unequal spending among schools denies children equal protection of the laws.
This principle was first tested in 1973 when the New Jersey Supreme Court heard the case of Robinson v. Cahill. The plaintiffs were challenging the state's method of financing schools, saying the constitutional requirement of educational opportunity was being violated. The court found the existing system to be unconstitutional because it relied on property tax revenues that reflected a geographical segregation by both race and economic level. In the 1985 hearing of Abbott v. Burke, the Courts sought to equalize funding through the establishment of the Special Needs Districts (SNDs) that would receive remedial relief.
Unfortunately, the most influential of the elements of community that is seen in the Black culture is that of poverty. "African-American children living in inner cities reside in social contexts with depleted resources.... The schools in these neighborhoods are frequently overcrowded and lack adequate material resources necessary to provide a competitive education. These children also suffer greater exposure to community violence due to the proliferation of illicit drug trade and blossoming gang activity. As such, they are more likely to witness violence, to engage in aggressive and violent acts, as well as to be victims of violence" (Myers and Taylor 216). The cultural strength of community support may well lead to an isolationist attitude which, in concert with discrimination, perpetuating the status quo.
Money, materials and opportunity are the foundation of what Kozol proposes as changes that will enable the poverty level student to receive an equal education. School Boards and legislators feel that by offering the "school of choice" to poor minorities they are providing equal opportunity. Kozol points out that this equal opportunity cannot exist. He states that: "school boards think that, if they offer the same printed information to all parents, they have made choice equally accessible. That is not true, of course because the printed information won't be read, or certainly will not be scrutinized aggressively, by parents who can't read or who read very poorly" (62).
Flexibility to social fluctuations is a cultural trait that African-Americans have been able to utilize in adapting to a myriad of negative social forces - including slavery, the transition to freedom, segregation and racism. The demands and resources of the Black family are in constant state of change, demanding that flexibility be used in linking family members to the demands and resources of external systems of community and society. "Equal funding is taken for granted where national education systems exist, and in those countries little variation among schools is expected. America's history of local schools supported by local taxes, however, has created a different set of expectations. Here people are used to deciding how much they will spend on education,…[continue]
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