60 Years After Brown v. Board, Education Is Still the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

Your Take: Three generations after the end of legal segregation in schools, writes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, we’re still fighting to provide all children with equal access to a high-quality education.

Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson (center) at a press conference at Los Angeles City Hall with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (third from left) and current and former NBA players regarding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling on April 29, 2014 Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

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 (pdf) 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.

Kevin Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Follow him on Twitter.

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