May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that rejected the "separate-but-equal" doctrine justifying segregated schools. But while Brown may have ended segregation in law, many observers contend that a two-tiered public-education system persists in America.
Economically segregated neighborhoods lead to economically-and often racially-segregated schools. Achievement in such schools has typically been low, while violence rates have been high. Advocates of parental choice in education argue that economic empowerment through choice is the only way out. "Education choice is probably the one policy today that can create educational opportunity," says Casey Lartigue with Fight for Children, a child-advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Black Americans' support for parental choice in education has grown considerably in the decade since the 40th anniversary of Brown. From Howard Fuller, former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, to Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams, leaders have advocated choice as a means of equal opportunity for low-income minority children.
Virginia Walden Ford has known personally both racial segregation as a fact of law and economic segregation as a fact of life-and fought both as well. As a high-school student, she was among the students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, her mother was one of four teachers sent to integrate the city's public-school teaching corps, and her father was the city's first black assistant superintendent.
Today Mrs. Ford is a living link between the two generations of civil-rights litigation and legislation. Personal experience made her a leader in the movement for parental choice in education: By the time her son William entered eighth grade in Washington, D.C., public schools, she was concerned he would end up dropping out-the graduation rate for African-American students is just over 50 percent. But a neighbor saw potential in William and offered to pay $6,000 in tuition so he could attend Archbishop Carroll High School, a private Catholic school. William graduated. Today, he serves as a U.S. Marine in Iraq.
Meanwhile, his mother continues to rally advocates for choice to change policy so that other parents may have similar options. Mrs. Ford views her work as finishing what her parents' generation started. She is getting closer to that goal: In February she returned to Archbishop Carroll High School, along with President Bush, to celebrate the passage of the Washington, D.C., voucher initiative. What her son William received through individual generosity, thousands of D.C. students will now have as a matter of public policy.
Fifty years after Brown the nation's capital is preparing to launch the first federally funded voucher program. Thousands of Washington, D.C., residents have expressed interest in the 1,700 vouchers of up to $7,500 to attend private schools this fall.
The achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers may be narrowing, according to a new report by the liberal-leaning Council of Great City Schools. "Beating the Odds IV" shows that in some major urban districts, the achievement gap on fourth- and eighth-grade tests of reading and math is narrowing faster than it is statewide. "We must make sure that all children, regardless of their skin color and zip codes, have the opportunity to get a high-quality education," said Education Secretary Rod Paige.
First appeared in World Magazine