A Broken System, Part I: UnconstitutionalDecember 29, 2009
What aspect of U.S. life wraps all the forms of oppression and inequality into one tidy little package? What system successfully keeps women, people of color, LGBT, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and people in poverty "in their place" more effectively than any other? Why, the education system, of course.
And as a teacher and writer on all things unequal, it’s high-time I start specifically addressing education (in the States, and abroad). So I bring to you the first of a multi-part CVT special: A Broken System, Part I: Unconstitutional.
"Separate but equal" is inherently unequal. So what about "separate and unequal"?
This post is a long-delayed response to the ongoing situation at South Philadelphia High* and the U.S. public school system, in general; and it goes something like this:
We all know that the public school system in the U.S. is a problem. We all know that public schools in the richer areas of big cities, or in the suburbs, are drastically better than those in poorer areas of the country (whether rural or urban). This is not something that anybody would refute. We also know that, in many poor, urban schools, the student population is heavily skewed towards students of color. In those schools, we are also aware that race-related violence is a part of everyday life. We know that many of these schools use large portions of their federal and state money on security measures, as opposed to education.
So let’s take a look at this logically; summed up, we all know that a disproportionate number of students of color are in inferior schools with major impediments to receiving a decent education. Hmmm . . . and last time I checked, I recall reading that schools are getting more racially segregated over time. Sounds like "separate but unequal" to me.
But this isn’t even just about the students of color, because it’s all about socio-economic status, as well. Try to tell those white kids in poverty in the awful city public schools that they’re not getting screwed. Or the white kids in poor rural towns. They’re most definitely not getting an "equal" education, either.
And everybody knows this. Teachers. Students. Parents. Community members. Politicians. And the general public. We all know this. And yet, our actions deem it acceptable. Because, in spite of all the posturing and big words by government and various organizations, nothing truly different is being done about it all. New teaching techniques are sought – as if the crappy educations most of these kids are receiving has anything to do with the teaching techniques. Find me a teaching technique that makes a kid feel safe and relaxed and able to focus on learning in a school with metal detectors, and I’ll start my own religion with the creator of said technique as my god.
"Emergency measures" are put into place – like heightened security, or thorough studies of "what’s really going on." We look into those few exceptional schools that beat the odds, parade them around as proof that "it can be done," and then we give them more money without changing anything about the other schools. A principal gets fired. Superintendents are replaced. And then the status quo returns, and nothing has changed.
And we know this.
And all I can think of is the days of legalized segregation in the United States. When schools were intentionally segregated by race, stated to be "equal," and the majority accepted it – even though everybody knew that there was no way any of it was actually "equal." But, at the time, those receiving the unequal treatment had much less power, they were deemed inferior by the majority, and therefore, things were allowed to continue. Besides, wasn’t it "their" fault if "their" schools were inferior?
Now, we blame violence in schools on the kids. We blame the environmental factors that create this violence on the parents. We blame the inability to overcome the issues confronting a community on race or a "culture of poverty."** And then we sit back and feel like it’s okay that we do nothing, because "there’s nothing we can do."
Just like during the days of legal segregation. But – just like then – there is something that can be done. Our government is not the greatest, our country perpetrates our share of horrors on the world, but we do have a legal system that at least works sometimes. So how did we beat segregation the last time? We deemed it unconstitutional, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When Brown vs. the Board of Education went down, Chief Justice Earl Warren said,
To separate [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone…. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Change that one word, "race,"*** to "class" or "economic status," and we’re in the exact same boat right now. Warren was right then, and it still applies now – my students were very aware of the inferiority of their schools, their status, and their likelihood of going to college and pulling in a job with real power. Take away all the other messages they received on a daily basis that told them they weren’t "as good as," and their schools alone did a fine job of it. Multiply that by 12 years and tell me they have an "equal" chance at anything.
And so I say this, flat-out: the current state of education in the United States is unconstitutional. We are all perpetuating a major injustice, and we all know that we are doing so.
I’m not a lawyer or a judge. I’m not a politician. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the justice system, and I don’t know which loopholes and tricks keep things as they are, but I do know that the only way to achieve real, positive change in our public schools is through drastic measures. And I also know that the only way to get drastic measures to take place is through a landmark Supreme Court decision declaring "the way it is" to be unconstitutional.
Because it is. And so I issue this request and challenge to whomever happens to read this – how do we get this case off the ground? How do we go from soap-box lecturing on a blog site (because I know that that’s all this is at this point) to real action? It’s an honest question – because I don’t have the background to set this kind of thing up. Has this been challenged before? If so, what were the arguments that sent it back?
I’ve always prided myself on complaining only if I intend to do something about it. And it’s documented. I have most sincerely complained. So now I ask for further support in doing something about it. Because (insert whomever you deem the "highest" here) Almighty – I’m ready for a change.****
* If you’re not aware of that whole debacle, please look it up RIGHT NOW.
** Unless, of course, the exact same problems and issues are confronting white folks, because it’s not just people of color that live in those communities and have to deal with poverty, violence, abuse, and addiction.
*** Although one can argue that it still is largely due to a child’s race that they end up in these schools, let’s include all the people getting screwed here.
**** Obviously the next question is: what drastic change is needed? I’ve got plenty of ideas, of course, but let’s not put the cart before the horse on this one . . .
***** And with this image, I in no way want to say that the police officer with the little girl is the same as those from the iconic Civil Rights era photograph – the systems are the same, not the people.