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Exposing the New Plessy v. Ferguson

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Thirty years ago, the landmark 1983 education report, "A Nation at Risk," graphically detailed the then growing educational deficits facing American schoolchildren. The report placed heavy emphasis on the progress in educational achievement made by other industrialized nations and warned that America could fall even further behind if it failed to act.

In response to the challenges outlined in the report, the commission wrote, "A Nation at Risk" which made 38 recommendations, including those focused on professionalizing teachers and raising standards and expectations. They also placed emphasis on the need for more time on task for students, essentially longer school days and longer school years.

Now, 30 years later, we spend twice as much on K-12 education and have failed to implement most of the recommendations suggested in the report and internal school system reform efforts have been spotty at best. Not surprisingly, the educational outputs of our children are virtually the same as they were 30 years ago, if not worse, particularly for low-income children of color.

One bright spot has been found in alternative and educational choice programs, many of whom have had consistent success educating the most challenging population of kids. These folks prove every day that all kids can learn, especially if we give them quality teachers and make sure they spend more time on task, one of the key "Nation at Risk" recommendations.

Instead of embracing the innovative approaches found in non-traditional schools, a new argument against reform is taking hold. Increasingly, some traditionalists have begun to argue that the problem with K-12 education is not with the schools, but with poverty in America. Those who echo this sentiment claim that American education is doing fine, if we don't include the results of our poor kids when examining the current state of public education. According to these folks, we even do well when compared to other nations.

Even though many of these arguments are easily rebutted, those voices suggesting that our biggest problem is poverty and not the performance of our schools continue to grow. As a result, an environment is being created in which the poverty problem becomes the reason to back away from aggressive reform efforts.

So where will all of this lead? From my perspective, those with this mindset are building momentum for two separate education systems. One, for those upper middle class and wealthy families, many of whose kids are already being schooled in non-diverse settings. And, a second system for those kids trapped in poverty, who theoretically cannot learn because of their circumstances. Of course they would be separate, but equal, with the poor kids getting the wraparound services they need, without bringing down the scores of kids with means. Ummm. Separate but equal. Sounds eerily like the infamous Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, in which legal segregation in our schools was deemed to be constitutional, so long as African- Americans had access to equal resources. Until Plessy was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the law of the land sanctioned the concept of separate but equal.

The Brown Court said:

"We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does."

In the passage above, substitute the word poverty for the word race. As we talk more and more about educating poor kids differently, are we unwittingly moving toward another separate but equal discussion?

Am I being too extreme in suggesting that those who want to point to poverty as being the reason schools don't work are pushing us back to a new era of separate, but equal? I think not. Ever been to a traditional public school where the kids are separated ostensibly based on proficiency? In those schools, doesn't it seem as though the kids are divided by economic class? Those perceived divisions existing in our schools will invariably grow as the emphasis on the poverty dilemma in schools persists. Now is the time to face the truth about the challenges found in too many of our schools. Yes, poverty is a factor, but it is not the only factor. Our biggest problem is the politics of education and the unwillingness to really put our kids first, as emphasized by the nonpartisan Strong American Schools when it issued its report card during the 25th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk." That organization's analysis included the following passage:

"While the national conversation about education would never be the same, stunningly few of the Commission's recommendations actually have been enacted. Now is not the time for more educational research or reports or commissions. We have enough commonsense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools. The missing ingredient isn't even educational at all. It's political. Too often, state and local leaders have tried to enact reforms of the kind recommended in A Nation at Risk only to be stymied by organized special interests and political inertia. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation's K-12 schools."

Let's put the politics and limiting school district work rules aside, place a quality teacher in every classroom -- even those classrooms of kids from impoverished backgrounds -- and see what happens. If we don't have the will to do that, we can continue to stick our heads in the sand, blame the victim and allow this new "the problem is poverty" theme to propel us to disconnected and unwise solutions, like a separate but equal approach to educating poor kids. Folks, let's not go back to Plessy v. Ferguson.