In his "two Americas" stump speech -- the single most powerful message anyone delivered in the Democratic primaries this winter -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina talked bluntly about the differences between the education, health care, housing and other basics available to the well-off and the working poor in this country.
"We have two different school systems," Edwards said in countless appearances, "one for people in the most affluent communities and another for everyone else." That message -- largely dismissed by the Bush White House and de-emphasized by John Kerry in his reach for middle-class votes -- is of special relevance as the nation prepares to note the 50th anniversary on Monday of the Supreme Court decision that formally ended racial segregation in our schools.
Brown v. Board of Education was a legal landmark, but the reason that the anniversary is being observed, rather than celebrated, is what Edwards had the courage to point out. In far too many places, the notion of equal opportunity in education is still far from reality.
In "Beyond Brown v. Board: The Final Battle for Excellence in American Education," written for the Rockefeller Foundation and published this week, Ellis Cose of Newsweek cites example after example of the holes that remain in the system. "[B]lacks (and Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans) do not, for the most part, go to the same schools, or even the same types of schools, as do the majority of non-Hispanic whites," Cose wrote. "They are more likely to go to schools such as those found in parts of rural South Carolina; schools that, were it not for the American flags proudly flying over the roofs, might have been plucked out of some impoverished country that sees education as a luxury it can barely afford."
The law firm headed by Richard Riley, the former secretary of education in the Clinton Cabinet, represents parents and school officials in several of those poor South Carolina counties in a lawsuit seeking to force the state to provide more funds for those schools. With integration -- the original goal of the Brown decision -- thwarted in many places by residential segregation, resistance to busing and the growing reluctance of federal courts to impose their orders, Cose points out that the new legal battleground has become state court lawsuits seeking "adequacy" in school funding.
The suits, which have begun to win scattered success in states as diverse as New York, North Carolina, Arizona and Idaho since the first breakthrough in Kentucky in 1989, ask the courts to require that the state determine what it takes to educate a child adequately -- in staff, facilities, books and equipment -- and come up with the money to provide it.
The movement fits logically with the standards set in President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform. The 2002 law aims at either rescuing or shuttering low-performing schools and especially at helping students who have been shuffled through grades without really getting an education.
By measuring youngsters' competence in basic skills at regular intervals and requiring adequate progress for all parts of the school population -- not just the bright students -- NCLB pressures states and districts to take steps to eliminate education failures. And that in turn sets up a demand for better principals and teachers and materials.
But standards by themselves will not end the two-track education system. Resources have to flow to the schools and districts that lack the tools they need. A recently published "Look Inside 33 School Districts" by the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocate for more effective public schools, draws the contrast.
The Romulus, N.Y., school system, a small suburban district between Rochester and Syracuse, has found no difficulty meeting the first two years of NCLB requirements. "The district has taken steps to not only recruit well-qualified teachers for any vacancies that arise, but also retain them," the report says. "Romulus has established an extensive mentoring program that taps the expertise of retired teachers by matching them in mentor relationships with new teachers" that continue for a full year. No surprise, then, that "Romulus students perform at high levels."
A few pages later in the report one finds the Cleveland Municipal School District, whose officials "applaud the spirit of NCLB and agree that schools should be held accountable" but where "implementation has been rocky." The district could not reach its mandated improvement goals, with 27 schools on a watch list for failing to meet standards. Officials cannot say how many Cleveland teachers rate as "highly qualified." And state budget cuts cost Cleveland schools $33 million in the current biennium.
The Romulus schools are 97 percent white; the Cleveland schools, 80 percent non-white. Fifty years after Brown, John Edwards's description still applies.