Education is the great equalizer, and as society we must continually work toward improving equity for all students. Even though we continue to make significant strides we have a long way to go. The new muscle being exerted by the Department of Education with enforcement of equity issues is welcome, but will increase the headaches of already resource-depleted schools and their administrations.
On Monday, March 8, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma with students and civil rights activists commemorating the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights marchers headed from Selma to Montgomery only made it to this bridge when state and local law enforcement officers attacked them with tear gas and billy clubs.
In Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech for Best Actress on Sunday night she thanked her mother, Helga Bullock, for teaching her “that there’s no race, no religion, no class system, no color, nothing, no sexual orientation that makes us better than anyone else.” Not only was I taught similarly, my parents implored me to use whatever skills I had for teaching fairness and justice. My four years at Bellarmine taught me to be a “man for others.”
That is why I ran for school board and worked for 20 years as a principal. Our system of public education, unintentionally in most cases, perpetuates a system that works more effectively for whites than Latinos and African-Americans.
In Selma Duncan said: “The struggle for equal opportunity in our nation’s schools and universities is not at an end…We will work with schools and enforce laws to ensure that all children, no matter what their race, gender, disability or native origin, have a fair chance at a good future.”
According to his prepared remarks, Duncan will admonish the past work of the Office of Civil Rights for not being vigilant enough in combating gender and racial discrimination in schools. He is setting markers down, and, under the direction of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali, the Office of Civil Rights will step up enforcement of laws for schools and districts.
School leaders at site and district levels must look at their own data carefully and review their equity and fairness issues. I am certain many would be surprised by their findings. I suggest local school officials look at data by race and gender relative to grading, honor roll, discipline, suspensions, advanced placement, honors, gifted and talented, student government, and attendance.
According to the Office of Civil Rights, white students are six times as likely to be prepared and qualified to enroll in advanced placement biology courses as black students. In addition, white students are twice as likely to have taken advanced placement calculus classes as black or Latino high school graduates.
I wish that today in every American History and U.S. Government class in 8th grade and in high school “Bloody Sunday” was a case study discussed. I am nearly certain that did not happen. Federal Court Judge Frank M. Johnson granted the protection under the U.S. Constitution of the 3rd march on March 21, 1965 by stating, “the law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups…and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”
About five months after the march, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We will never reach our nation’s true ideals as the shining light for justice until we achieve equity for all. Schools are where it must be nourished.