Students, parents and teachers from across the country gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court Tuesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, demanding that continued action be taken to ensure the equality of all students in American schools.
Although schools are no longer segregated by law, inequalities and obstacles facing low-income students of color still persist, the group argued at the rally, organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which represents more than 7 million parents, students and educators nationwide. The group took issue with several controversial topics in education, including a perceived overemphasis on high-stakes standardized testing, school closures due to low test scores or financial struggles, zero tolerance discipline policies and private involvement in public education.
"It's 60 years later and our schools are still separate and unequal," said Ocynthia Williams, a parent leader. "They are more separate today than ever. Our schools have become high-stakes testing factories. Corporate America is trying to privatize them. … We are reclaiming our public schools, and we are demanding that the promises of Brown v. Board of Education be fulfilled."
Sharron Snyder, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia told the story of how her school had to accommodate the students of two others this year because those schools were among the 23 schools officials voted to close last spring, she said. The city's schools have struggled financially, and at one point it was possible that no schools would open for the beginning of the 2013-14 school year for a lack of funding.
Snyder said her high school is overcrowded and lacks the necessary resources for students to succeed.
"It is hard for my counselor to get to everyone because there are too many students in my school," Snyder said. "We demand full funding and support for neighborhood based community schools. Don't close or privatize them."
The leaders of the nation's two largest teachers unions – Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association – also addressed the crowd of about 100 supporters.
Weingarten invited several young children to join her in front of the podium from which she addressed the crowd, saying, "These kids, this is why we do what we do."
"Every time we think about education as educators, the first image in our mind is the children that you see here. That is what public education is about," Weingarten said. "We together need to change the trajectory to make sure public education is the anchor of democracy, is the propeller of economy and, more important than anything else, that every one of these children's dreams, our public education system must be good enough to ensure that they reach every one of those dreams."
Van Roekel said there are several inequalities that still exist in both educational programs and in school facilities.
"Living through the '60s and when I started teaching, I honestly believed that within my career, we would see an end to those inequities, and we have not," Van Roekel said. "We need to change that, and we need to change it now. Sadly, in today's world, segregated schools and housing are the norm. … Economic and racial inequalities are on the rise."
While segregation in schools is no longer mandated by law, many schools look the same way they did 60 years ago due to neighborhood segregation that persists today, says Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.
"Schools follow the neighborhoods," he says, and as long as neighborhoods are homogeneous, the students represented in those schools will be as well.
"The reality is that the vast majority of low-income kids of color continue to attend schools with majority low-income kids of color," Lomax says. "Education would be enriched if it were an education where they're meeting and learning with kids from a range of backgrounds, but ... the fact that the only time we achieve that is when black kids get bused out of their neighborhoods into someone else's neighborhood, I just don't think that is a solution which really works."
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Still, Lomax says that while he wouldn't say the glass is half full since the Brown decision, there have been some improvements toward equality for low-income students of color, particularly in the realm of school choice.
"I am beginning to see some promising educational improvements that are ensuring that if a low-income child of color wants to remain in the neighborhood in which he or she lives, that if we create a really good school in that neighborhood, that child can get a very good education," Lomax says.