Equal Access under the Law: Education and Civil Rights

Published June 7, 2011

Americans claim civil rights flippantly. But the basic principle of equal protection or access under the law is not complicated. And, while millennium civil rights activists agitate for items questionably within this category—universal healthcare, “affordable” housing, gay “marriage”—they ignore an obvious roadblock to equal access affecting the most vulnerable in our society: the lack of educational options for millions of poor and minority children.

As we all know, in standard school districts children are slotted for a public school based on their address or zip code. The only way out of that school for these children, then, is for their family to move to another district, make enough money to send them to a private school, or to have enough free time and human capital to homeschool them. Poor families are severely limited, if not hopeless, on all three counts.

Witness the disconnect between self-styled civil rights advocates and the people they profess to champion. The Wall Street Journal reported June 4 that the NAACP joined the United Federation of Teachers in a lawsuit against New York City to keep 22 of its worst schools from closing.  One of these, the Academy for Collaborative Education in Harlem, boasts 3 percent of students performing at grade level for English last year, and 9 percent in math. Another, Columbus High School in the Bronx, has a graduation rate of 40 percent, compared to a citywide average of 63 percent.

When thousands of black parents held a rally to protest the lawsuit aiming to keep their kids trapped in these atrocious schools, the NAACP responded with indifference. Lawsuit critics “can march and have rallies all day long,” said state NAACP President Hazel Dukes. “We will not respond.”

Sounds like the Jim Crow attitudes of the 1960s.

Similarly, a lawsuit in California is preventing parents using the state’s new Parent Trigger law from their new legal right to demand that the failing McKinley Elementary in Compton be converted to a charter school. So now their kids have spent an extra half year, and will spend heaven knows how much more, in a school where they can’t learn and their parents can’t save them.

Fifty years ago, some public schools deliberately segregated children based on race. In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ripped apart this practice in Brown v. Board of Education. Ironically enough, the Topeka NAACP recruited the thirteen winning plaintiffs in a case concluding that “separate but equal” was not equal.

Today, not just blacks but other poor families of all races are not only often slotted into separate, or minority-majority, public schools, they dwell in learning environments so unequal that 3 percent of students can test at grade level in English and still have teachers insisting they deserve the jobs at which they’ve clearly failed.

Public schools, administrators, and teachers are not solely to blame for poor performance in urban and minority schools—they can only work with the students and cultures to which they are assigned, too. It’s the whole structure of restriction and restraint, of perpetuated powerlessness, which must change. Parents and children need the freedom to choose schools. Public school funds should attach to each child, not a single, unchanging structure, thus granting power to the powerless and removing it from those who use power to crush the weak.

The Supreme Court of 1954 would surely agree that equal access is not equal access when opportunities to rise upon individual achievement do not exist inside the only public school available to poor students. Even the brightest slum child cannot learn without a teacher or book to learn from. When public school quality varies so widely across the country, equal access means not that you can attend your local school, but that public funds support you at any of the accredited schools available.

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.