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Racial Equity 50 Years After King's Speech

The quick answer to this query is that we are closer to racial equity in both achievement and opportunity than we were 50 years ago, but much further from reaching Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of equal educational opportunity than we should and could be. During the 1970s and late 1980s, shortly after King spoke, the black-white achievement gap substantially narrowed: for example, in terms of reading scores measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the "nation's report card," a 39-point gap for 13-year-olds in 1971 was reduced to 18 points in 1988. Since that time, there have been some ups and downs, but basically the gap today is where it was 35 years ago.


Michael Rebell
It's not hard to understand the reasons for the lack of progress in recent decades. Children who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s benefitted from the affirmative steps both the federal courts and the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights were taking to promote school desegregation, and from the infusion of federal funding that followed passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965.


By the late 1980s, the federal government had reversed course. The U.S. Supreme Court backtracked on school desegregation and federal appropriations for education fell behind the growing needs.

Enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 was a landmark event for equity in education. In place of the vague "Goals 2000" that were the focus of federal education policy in the 1990s, Congress now required as a legal mandate that all children throughout the United States be proficient in meeting challenging state standards by 2014. Moreover, the purposes clause of the act defined educational opportunity not only in terms of "fair and equal," but also in terms of "substantial" opportunities, implying that adequate resources and meaningful mechanisms must be put in place to achieve the 100 percent proficiency target.

Of course, no one realistically expected that 100 percent proficiency could actually be achieved at the end of 12 years; the president and the congressional leaders who drafted the act knew that some mid-course correction would be needed as we approached 2014. But certainly, they expected that by 2013, a year before their target date, the proficiency figures would be a lot closer to the 100 percent legal requirement than the present reality which is that only about 34 percent of 4th and 8th graders are reading at NAEP proficiency levels.

In my view, two factors explain this harsh stall in equity improvement. First, Congress never adequately funded No Child Left Behind; most of the increased funding that President George W. Bush had promised the congressional Democrats for their support of the act never materialized. Second, the states also failed to do their share.

Although for decades many state courts had plowed ahead in ordering states to provide adequate funding for education after the U.S. Supreme Court had turned a blind eye to equity in funding in 1973, since the recession of 2008, some of these state courts have sidestepped enforcement of their own prior edicts, even as many states mercilessly cut back on education funding, undoing much of the progress that had been achieved in years past.

Equity is still boldly proclaimed to be our nation's prime education policy in both federal and state laws and court decisions. What is required in the years ahead is serious enforcement of these legal and moral mandates.

Michael A. Rebell is the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, in New York City. He is also a professor of practice in law and educational policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School.

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