Note: This commentary was originally published by The Tribune-Review.
Equality in Pennsylvania can never be obtained as long as education is not an even playing field.
In pursuing the dream of equality in this country, let’s keep in mind: “Education equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Unequal education can thwart the most important aspects of civil rights: equality under the law, equal career opportunity, and equal respect.
This has been obvious since long before the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. And over the course of the last several decades, it has been trumpeted by public policy advocates who are concerned about America’s collective failure to keep up with other western countries.
They suggest a simple solution: provide education equality for all American schoolchildren, allowing their parents access to good schools regardless of ZIP codes and socio-economic conditions.
But it’s not so easy. Achieving that goal has been one of the most evasive pursuits among the disadvantaged for over a century.
The solution for inequality is an open pathway to opportunity — but opening these educational pathways has always been a battle.
Access to quality education has always been withheld by those in control who fear losing power. Before the Civil War, most slave owners blocked access to books altogether. Since then, civil rights advocates have resisted attempts to trap disadvantaged students in failing schools.
The solution for inequality is an open pathway to opportunity—but opening these educational pathways has always been a battle.
After Reconstruction, access to quality education was stymied as local governments used Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to maintain inferior schools for African Americans, locking them away from quality schools for decades. In the aftermath of the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education, schools in Virginia and Arkansas closed schools rather than integrate them to provide equal access to quality education for all citizens. Governors of high-profile states even incited riots and blocked doorways to prevent access to education equality.
Sadly, we live in an era where America finds itself resegregating. Education in the Northeast is now the most segregated in the nation, with Pennsylvania ranking sixth nationally on this scale.
In over half of all districts in Allegheny County, school systems were plagued with achievement gaps between black and white students during the past school year. When schoolchildren are not segregated by race in the Keystone State, it’s often shown that they remain separated by results, even in some of the best school districts. In the Fox Chapel Area School District, African American students still find themselves on the wrong end of a 35 percent achievement gap between blacks and other students—in both English proficiency and math proficiency.
The Penn Hills School District is battling a double-whammy on students and their families: a crippling debt that robs classrooms of resources and tumbling performances that land its schools in the bottom quarter of the state’s academic rankings. In the nation’s “most livable city,” black students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system have a proficiency deficiency of 40 percent in literature, algebra, and biology.
Access to broken and failing systems of education is not access to quality education. In fact, civil rights activists always understood that equality is never obtainable when full opportunity to rise is not permissible—starting with education.
That’s why the fight for equality today is rooted in education reform. For some, that comes from expanded access to school choice by way of proposals such as education scholarship accounts and tax credit programs. For others, it comes by accommodating the thousands annually who seek to enroll in charter schools.
Equality as intended by the Constitution cannot be enjoyed until the flaws of our past—namely, keeping the worst-off in the worst academic settings based on the worst excuses—stop parading as visionary strategies for today and tomorrow.
Education equality is not just the civil rights issue of our time; it has been the civil rights issue during each unique time in America’s story—including today. That’s why the march for justice must continue, recognizing that the challenges to education equality are not new.