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Separate and Unequal Schools

THE SCHOOL funding ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court returns us to 1964 when Malcolm X observed that 10 years after the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, the federal government had yet to enforce it. He asked, "If the federal government cannot enforce the law of the highest court of the land when it comes to nothing but equal rights to education for African-Americans, how can anyone be so naive to think all the additional laws brought into being by the Civil Rights Bill will be enforced?"

It also takes us to 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "The Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait."

No one can be naive any longer. A half-century after Brown, students of low-income school districts in our state are the creatures told to patiently wait.

The students sued for faster funding to catch up to wealthier districts. Even though SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall agreed that "sharp disparities" still persist, the state won her over with the $30 billion it was forced to spend on ed reform. She said, "I cannot conclude that the Commonwealth currently is not meeting its constitutional charge."

Given the wealth of Massachusetts, the conclusion was a stake through the ideal of equal rights. It was particularly stunning since the same court that legalized gay marriage joined forces with the conservative education movement to make it official that disparity is the expected American condition.

The victims are no longer just "the Negro" of King's and Malcolm's day. The plaintiffs represented a multicultural outpouring of people who see that neglect of schools in black neighborhoods was just a canary. Today, all but the youth in the toniest suburbs are at risk.

The $30 billion means nothing to plaintiff Julie Hancock and her Brockton High School that has 32 computers for 4,000 students. It means nothing to the 16,500 children, nearly equivalent to a third of the Boston public school enrollment, who are on the Metco waiting list to flee to suburban schools. It means nothing to Springfield's Latino students trying to overcome low test scores in overcrowded classrooms where teachers fell to the budget ax.

The state defeated Hancock by saying it has closed the gap between low-income Lowell and high-income Wellesley from $2,311 per student to $1,182 per student. But that's after a full decade. It remains the case that the state is forcing all students to take the same standardized tests while getting the poor just halfway to the starting line. That means the poor must try twice as hard to overcome privilege. Funny, that's what black parents have told their children for generations to convince them to overcome racism.

There is nothing to suggest how the remaining half of the gap will be closed. Not when President Bush wants to cut $4.3 billion in education programs while giving tax cuts to the rich. Not when he refuses to fully fund No Child Left Behind. Not when his war in Iraq is about to reach $207 billion in spending.

There once was much more money available for schools. According to the Massachusetts-based National Priorities Project, the war has cost the equivalent of 27.5 million slots for Head Start, or 24,000 new elementary schools, or 40 million college scholarships, or 3.5 million music and arts teachers. But to get anyone's attention on funding gaps, it had to be as bad as New York, where its high court this week ordered the state to give New York City $9.2 billion over the next five years for school renovations.

The SJC decision risks taking us much farther back than Malcolm or King. It has a whiff of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upholding separate public accommodations. In Plessy, the court said, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."

America lived comfortably with Plessy for another half-century as "the Negro" wore the scar of patience. Now, a half-century after Brown, a high court says the children of the public schools must continue to suffer the state's sloth. The state's tenacity in fighting Julie Hancock betrayed the horrible truth in American education. When the children dared to ask for equality, they ceased being objects of sympathy. They became enemies of a state that has no intention of putting them on the same plane.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

— Derrick Z. Jackson
Boston Globe





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