Johnson: Alarming reality 60 years after Brown v. Board

An empty classroom in 2011.

An empty classroom in 2011. (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

Sixty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools violated our basic equal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution - a decision that gave birth, in large part, to the civil rights movement in our country. But while the Brown v. Board of Education case is a historic event to be celebrated, its anniversary, in my view, is not.

Today the children who attended public schools in 1954 are grandparents and great-grandparents. But nearly three generations later, we're still fighting to provide equal access to a high-quality education for every student in America.

Consider these staggering data points:


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-- An African-American student is twice as likely as a white student to drop out of high school, according to The Education Trust.

-- African-American and Hispanic students, on average, trail their white peers by more than 20 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to one study. That's a differential that puts minority students two grade levels behind.

-- Public schools whose student populations are mostly students of color spend hundreds of dollars less per student every year and are far more likely to have a higher percentage of underperforming teachers.

It's clear that we are failing to provide a first-class education equally to all students. Children's zip codes, their parents' socioeconomic status and their skin color still play a role in the quality of public schools available to them.

As a mayor, I focus on public education because I know that when schools fail, our kids and our cities pay the price - whether through local economies and workforces that cannot compete, increased crime rates, or depressed quality of life. You simply cannot have a great city without great schools.

In Sacramento, one of the things we've done to strengthen educational efforts is to recruit nonprofit agencies, including City Year, Teach for America and College Track, to open offices in our city so that we can benefit from having their teachers spend time in classrooms in our lowest-income neighborhoods.

But it's not enough to focus on schools in one city alone. That's why, as newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I'm making public education reform a major focus of my pro-growth platform. I will be working with mayors in every corner of this country, in cities big and small, to help them do their part to bring equality and excellence to all public schools as a matter of national urgency.

What does that mean? First and foremost, it means realizing the promise of Common Core through the successful implementation of new standards. Measuring all kids across the country with the same yardstick will go a long way toward identifying inequalities in our schools. The standards have become a political issue and that's unfortunate, because more than 90 percent of African-American parents believe that the standards would be an improvement in preparing their children for college and careers.

My wife - education-reform advocate Michelle Rhee - always says that the most powerful thing we can do inside schools is to make sure an excellent teacher is at the front of every classroom. Unfortunately, students of color in our country are more likely to be taught by an underqualified, brand-new or lower-paid teacher. That exacerbates inequity. Mayors can play a role in fixing that.

We also need to help students who are trapped in failing schools. More than 40 percent of African-American students in our country attend schools that are underresourced and performing poorly, but they have no other options. Mayors can help open and expand public charter schools, which, in many cities, are developing an incredible track record of closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

We ought to give props to mayors out there who are already working hard to bring equality to public schools - and follow their examples. For instance, in San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro set a goal of raising the percentage of Latino students seeking two- or four-year degrees to 50 percent by the year 2020. In Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock brought the SEEK program (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) to his city to connect mentors to students underrepresented in science and engineering fields.

And in Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras is taking a data-smart approach to increasing the vocabularies of students from low-income neighborhoods.

But there is still so much work to be done. This 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision is a reminder of how far we have to go in fulfilling the promise of that landmark court decision. Nearly three generations later, it's clear that equality in education remains the civil rights issue of our day.

Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

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