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50 Years After Kerner Commission, Education Still Seen as a Lever

Washington, D.C.

Poverty, class and racial animus that sparked devastating riots in the 1960s still echo today, and efforts to provide better educational opportunities and holistic supports for children and their families remain a crucial lever to build a more equitable society.

That's one conclusion of "Healing Our Divided Society," a new book-length report by the Eisenhower Foundation that is intended to serve as an update to the landmark 1968 final report of the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The so-called Kerner Commission, named for commission chairman and then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson a year earlier, to determine the cause of violent riots in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Chicago to Detroit. 

The Kerner commission concluded that poverty and institutionalized racism was creating a divided society—"one black, one white—separate and unequal"—and spurring civil unrest. It called for an end to housing and school segregation and broader health and job supports.

"We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about a decade after the Kerner report, and then that progress slowed, stopped, and in many cases reversed," said Fred Harris, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma and one of the original 11 commission members.

As part of a two-day symposium on the report here, experts from political, economic, and educational spheres argued that the country has made progress in racial equity, as marked by everything from rising high school graduation rates for black and Hispanic students to the widespread popularity of the "Black Panther" movie. But in other ways, the "divided society" has come to pass:

  • The child poverty rate in 2017, 21 percent, is higher than the 15.6 percent poverty rate when the Kerner report was released, with black and Latino children particularly at risk.
  • A majority of black and Hispanic students attend schools with a poverty rate of more than 75 percent, and less than half as many black students attend majority-white schools today, 20 percent, as did 30 years ago.
  • Black adults have higher unemployment rates than white adults at every level of educational attainment.

"It's clear that 50 years after the Kerner report, parental income remains the primary predictor of student achievement," said John Jackson, the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. "Essentially we are looking at the product of clear, consistent opportunity gap."

The report update calls for policymakers at all levels to invest in both physical and economic supports for poor and minority communities. For example, Catherine Lhamon, the chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, pointed to recent school closures in Baltimore after school building heating systems broke down in the middle of a bitter cold snap. The commission found similar problems in schools nationwide, including schools that lacked infrastructure updates or basic supplies like textbooks and toilet paper.

"We are sending a message to these children that their government does not believe in them, does not expect anything from them and considers them disposable," she said. 

Jackson and others suggested that prior efforts to use education to lift poverty have focused only on schools, rather than building a network of supports for families in poverty through health care, job training for parents, and more resources for schools. 

"There was a moment in the 1970s when black, Latino and white students were all going to college at the same rate," said Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the Learning Policy Institute, which helped put on the symposium about the report. "Policy can make a big difference" she said, noting that broad-based federal college financial aid programs, coupled with a greater social push for college access, helped students of all races pursue higher education 

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