Empowering Black Educational Achievement

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Next year, 2004, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation case.

That unanimous decision was momentous for many reasons.
One was that it declared segregation of blacks and whites in the nation's public schools unconstitutional, giving African-American schoolchildren the legal right to pursue equality of educational opportunity.

Secondly, by ruling school segregation illegal, the Supreme Court decision not only destroyed the bedrock of the South's perverse system of legalized racism, it also repudiated the North's less rigid but still widespread "custom" of racial discrimination.

In addition, the Brown decision was a crucial spur to the even greater zeal with which African Americans began to pursue higher education.

And finally, the Brown decision completed the collection of dynamic forces Black America had been gathering unto itself during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century that produced the explosive mass-action Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

For all these reasons, Brown v. Board of education of Topeka deserves our renewed attention in the coming year.

But there's also one additional reason we need to keep the great decision in our sights.

It is to remind us how much yet remains to be done to fulfill its promise.

The litany of what is wrong with public schooling in America—particularly as it affects children of color—is long. For all of the schools' considerable achievements, and for all the considerable achievements of the African-American youth who've grown up in the post-Brown era, America remains a paradox of progress for African Americans, one in which the "equality gaps" in many areas loom large.

Those gaps are nowhere more dramatic than in education.

Fifty years after Brown, we face the fact that America has not closed the achievement and resource gaps which make it more likely for a black child to attend an overcrowded and dilapidated school where performance is low and drop-out rate is high.

And that jailhouses are in better physical condition than many schoolhouses in black neighborhoods. And that the rate of incarceration of young black men continues to exceed their rate of going to college: in 2000 there were at least 13 states in which there were more African Americans in prisons than in college.

At our just-concluded annual conference in Pittsburgh I pledged that to spark a more vigorous campaign to close the equality gap in education the National Urban League will convene a "National Summit on Urban Education" during this school year.

We intend to identify existing techniques and develop new ones to ensure that every child, be they from the south side of Chicago, the South Bronx, or the Hill District of Pittsburgh have the intellectual skills they need to read at the highest levels, do math with great proficiency, and academically perform with distinction. We intend to bring together the best minds in education and public policy and dig at the roots of the achievement gap in order to develop a comprehensive strategy for improving the quality and equality of public education.

We will discuss such issues as the adequacy of pay for teachers, and whether more hours of instruction should be mandated; and whether universal access to early childhood education and after-school tutorials will help children more quickly acquire reading; and whether more resources and new strategies are needed to deal with the problem of adolescent literacy.

We will unveil a second phase of the Urban League's Campaign for African-American Achievement, and demand that America stop building fancy prisons and redirect these resources to build fancy schools with computers, playgrounds, libraries, and everything else our children need to compete and win in the challenging global marketplace of the 21st century.

Our goal is not just to leave no child behind. It is to push every child ahead. That's what's required if America is to thrive in the 21st century global economy—when children born in Birmingham and Peoria will be competing with children born in Budapest and Beijing and Paris for the jobs that make the world go.

We will support Black America's affirmation that it, too, has much more work to do to build an "empowerment movement" in education—a movement which by closing the dangerous, debilitating equality gap, gives African-American children a chance to contribute to America's growth and face the world on their own terms.

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