Reshaping Education Forty-Five Years After Brown

By Wendy S. Johnson

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 p. 3

An SRC survey on racial attitudes found sixty percent of Americans rank improving schools and education as a top priority over any other issue. The reasons are many. Education is the foundation for a decent job and livelihood and central to almost every other measure of a society's well-being.

Yet, as education improves in the South, inequalities within the educational system persist. Forty-five years after Brown began to break through barriers to educational participation, we confront the realities of institutional resistance to change.

The Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust reports that while tremendous progress was made toward closing the gap in reading scores between white and African-American and Latino students during the two decades leading up to 1989, today the reverse is true. During the 1970s and 1980s, the gap in achievement,between African-American and white students, as measured by reading scores, narrowed by about half, while the gap between Latino and white students narrowed by about one-third. Beginning in the late 80s, with some exceptions, that gap has begun to widen. In math, "while almost all groups are gaining, the gains among white students outpace gains among African Americans and Latinos," the Education Trust reported.

In this issue of Southern Changes, we review the past decade of SRC's work to overcome inequality in education in the context of its long history of involvement in the struggle to end unequal education. A glimpse of that long view is provided by former SRC Executive Director Leslie Dunbar (1961-1965) in "Schools in Conflict." Sarah Ellen Torian chronicles the key ingredients in SRC's current education strategy: building partnerships and nourishing peer leadership development for systemic school reform; valuing all students' learning styles; and setting high expectations for all learners.

We also hear from a host of Southern education reformers at work in various capacities in local places in the South: Dr. Lisa Delpit and Gwen Williams training teachers in Atlanta; Clarie White providing support to families in Fayetteville, North Carolina; Robert Woodruff in Hollandale and Robert Markham in Meridian, Mississippi, providing leadership as principals; Shirley Martin coordinating volunteer tutors in Monticello, Arkansas; Anne Cooper working from the school board in Athens/Clarke County, Georgia; and Karen Watson leading concerned citizens against racial barriers in Screven County, Georgia.

The national cry for accountability and standards is addressed by Hayes Mizell, director of the Program for Student Achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, who recognizes both the power and the limits of standards-based reform.

A host of school change efforts are underway across the nation, not all of them aimed at preserving and improving public education. Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools analyzes the moves by the right wing that are "taking aim at the very concept of public education," including advocating vouchers. The voucher proponents' Southern strategy, reviewed by Southern Changes managing editor Ellen Spears, is most succinctly summarized by Florida state PTA President-elect Patty Hightower who contends that voucher supporters, "really are trying to buy themselves out of having to provide an adequate educational system for all students."

As the local reformers echo, many public schools are changing for the better despite the challenges they face. But we cannot be content with an educational system that promises excellence for some. A society that is considering peacetime increases in the military budget and states and localities that are considering hefty increases in prison spending, should instead be devoting our resources to education. Dianne Piché of the Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights writes about the reauthorization battle for Title I, the only federal dollars targeted at equity in K-12 education.

Finally, we are celebrating the appearance later this spring of audio cassettes and compact discs of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," SRC's audio documentary of the Civil Rights Movement in five Southern cities. Producer of the Peabody Award-winning series George King has re-edited the oral histories and music into a valuable educational resource for schools and communities.

We invite you to join us as we call for new partnerships for school reform and spread our work for educational justice.

Wendy S. Johnson is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.