Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court created mass disruption in public education with its Brown v. Board of Education ruling. No more, the court said, could states discriminate against African-American children with government-sponsored segregation policies.
The decision was historic in scope and brought real progress. But as of yet, its promise of an equal education for all goes unrealized. We still have African-American and Hispanic fourth graders reading two and a half grade levels below their white counterparts, a gap that isn’t closing in later school years.
Such disparities, which largely reflect socioeconomic status, are unsustainable.
At the time of Brown v. Board, about 80 percent of American students were white. Now fast-forward to the future where, five years from now, minorities will make up half of the under-18 population.
The success of minority children in the 21st century will determine the success of this nation. We can no more compete in the world economy without engaging them than a boxer can win a fight with one arm behind his back.
Equality in education has evolved from an issue of social justice for one demographic group to what must become a national priority for all Americans. The achievement gap is far too wide while we try to bridge it with baby steps. This is not a reflection of the ability of students, but the consequence of a system that considers their achievement a secondary priority. Making kids the priority produces entirely different results.
For example, I recently spoke at a Success Academy Charter Schools gala in New York where I was upstaged by the 14-year-old student who introduced me. He is a debating champion who had just returned from a national tournament. He also lives in poverty, facing hardships most of us can’t imagine. And yet he attends a high-performing school that has him believing in his own success. He excels in the classroom and behind the podium. He speaks eloquently of overcoming his circumstances and participating in the American Dream.
He is not alone. The Success Academy targets its schools at disadvantaged children. And it achieves remarkable results.
Statewide, their students far outperformed students in traditional public schools last year in reading and math. At the Success Academy Bronx 2 school, with an 86 percent poverty rate, 97 percent of students scored proficient in math, more than triple the statewide average.
The Success Academy is not an isolated example. We also see strong results in the celebrated KIPP network of charter schools, in the Aspire network of charter schools in California, in the Noble network of charter schools in Chicago and schools in Florida such as the Latin Builders Association Construction & Business Management Academy Charter High School.
I could go on. In addition to charter schools, we see children excel when provided vouchers or tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts. Choice is providing education options more befitting the most diverse student population in our history.
In a relatively short period of time, we are seeing these alternatives achieve results that traditional public schools haven’t achieved in decades.
Such opportunities obviously were not in place when Brown v. Board was decided. The solutions for education inequality were engineered to accommodate public school bureaucracies. This allowed them to maintain their one-size-fits-all monopolies. They routinely sent poor children to schools that did not meet their needs, did not teach them to read, did not teach them math and did not provide them with the barest essentials to be a success in life.
Instead of confronting poverty, schools enabled it. We have been told that too many low-income students overwhelm the ability of the staff to effectively teach them. And so expectations are reduced. Standards are lowered. Failure is an accepted fait accompli, with adults in the schools and bureaucracies little more than helpless bystanders.
This situation exists when there are no sanctions for failure, no rewards for success, no measurement to mark progress and no choice for parents who cannot afford the right neighborhood or private school tuition.
And now some parents are being exposed to alternatives, to schools that set high standards, have a rigorous curriculum and create expectations of college. This is why they get on long waiting lists for these schools, while the schools they are trying to escape have a glut of available space. School choice isn’t an attack on public education. It is a response to shortcomings in public education.
The natural progression of Brown v. Board of Education is the empowerment of families. It is moving the critical decision of where a child goes to school away from centralized bureaucracies and into living rooms. It is creating a marketplace of schools where achievement is measured, where results are communicated to parents in a simple, transparent manner and where a school’s students are earned, not an entitlement.
Will this create disruption? Absolutely. But as we learned from Brown v. Board, disruption of a failed status quo can’t stop us from moving forward, particularly when the stakes are so high.
Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999-2007 and currently serves as chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Foundation for Florida’s Future.