All Deliberate Speed?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

A year ago we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and its sacred promise of equal educational opportunities. This year marks a half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court’s second decision in Brown. Although a less-heralded sequel, its largely unfulfilled mandate after 50 years makes our nation’s failure to live up to the original promise even more appalling.

Faced with massive resistance among segregationists to the 1954 Brown decision, the Supreme Court took up the case again a year later, ordering that its mandate of equal opportunity be fulfilled with all deliberate speed. The federal executive and judicial branches responded with strong mea-sures, such as dispatching the National Guard and ordering forced busing for integration.

In a certain technical sense, the measures worked. Official school segregation by race has largely ended. Thousands of minority schoolchildren obtained decent educational opportunities. Those opportunities fueled the creation of a thriving black middle class.

And yet in some ways the educational chasm between minority and non-minority schoolchildren is as great as it was 50 years ago. Even on measures of racial integration, progress has been arrested. In 1988, the percentage of black children attending mostly white schools crested at 44 percent. Today it has dropped to roughly 30 percent.

But academic deficiencies are even more glaring. In 1952, the illiteracy rate for blacks 14 years or older was 10.2 percent, more than five times higher than whites. Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 46 percent of black eighth graders (and 44 percent of Hispanics) scored below basic proficiency in reading.

Despite massive increases in public school spending, the racial academic gap appears to be growing. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom found in their book America in Black and White that, 10 years ago, average black high school seniors graduated at an academic level three years behind that of their white counterparts. A decade later, the gap had widened to four academic years.

Similarly, NAEP found in 2003 that only 51 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school. The huge dropout rates have devastating ramifications: 28 percent of the young black men who failed to graduate are today in jail.

The bright light on the horizon is school choice, in which children from low-income families or in failing public schools can enroll in private schools at public expense. The results from programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida suggest that school choice offers the greatest hope for reducing the racial academic gap.

School choice offers an educational life preserver, allowing children to leave good schools for better ones. Studies in Milwaukee and elsewhere find that black children gain the equivalent of one academic quarter each year, creating the prospect of erasing the racial academic gap altogether over 12 years. Likewise, a recent study found that 64 percent of the children in the Milwaukee school choice program graduate from high school, compared to only 37 percent in the public schools.

More important, school choice is the tide that lifts all boats. Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby has found that, wherever public schools face serious competition for students and educational dollars, they improve.

Florida, which has more school choice than any other state, is the best example. In Florida, children in failing public schools are allowed to leave to attend better-performing public schools or private schools at public expense. Failing public schools have responded to the competitive challenge by hiring tutors for failing students, moving to year-round classes, and spending more money in the classroom than on the bureaucracy.

Although only a few thousand eligible children actually have transferred, the results of school choice in Florida have been transformative. Dozens of public schools have lifted themselves off the failing lists. Gains on standardized tests have been concentrated among the poorest-performing students—exactly the reverse of what happens in most states, where children at the bottom of the academic ladder experience an ever-spiraling downward trajectory.

As a result, the racial academic gap in Florida is closing, even as it widens elsewhere. The Associated Press reported recently that reading test scores in Florida have improved since 2001 among all students, especially among blacks and Hispanics. The study found that, over four years, the percentage of white third graders reading at or above grade level increased from 70 to 78 percent. But it improved even more for black youngsters, from 36 to 52 percent, and for Hispanics, from 46 to 61 percent.

It seems that, in the 50 years since Brown, we have tried almost everything to equalize opportunities: from forced busing to increased spending to reduced class sizes to all manner of educational fads. Nothing has worked until now.

Little wonder. One thing that minority parents, especially economically disadvantaged minority parents, have always lacked is the power to choose the best schools for their children. More-affluent parents always have had that power, which they exercise either by buying homes in areas with good public schools or by sending their children to private schools.

School choice helps level the playing field. It gives low-income families greater power over their children’s education. The power to exit poor-performing schools, even if is not always exercised, forces the schools to improve and to focus not on satisfying politicians and special interest groups but on satisfying parents.

The results so far are obvious and impressive. But massive resistance to school choice today is no less potent and reactionary than massive resistance to desegregation was 50 years ago. Special interest groups that have a powerful interest in preserving the status quo thwart school choice at every legislative turn and then threaten to undo it in the courts whenever their efforts fail in the political arena.

Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court soon will consider a legal challenge to school choice in the Sunshine State. Should it strike down the program, it will arrest the remarkable progress that has been made in reducing the academic gap.

Such a result would make a mockery of the promise of all deliberate speed. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1955 that children do not have a moment to lose in their opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills essential for citizenship and productive livelihoods.

In the past 50 years, we have lost the better part of three generations of economically disadvantaged children to inadequate education. We need to rediscover the sense of urgency exemplified by the Brown decisions and concern ourselves less with where children are educated than whether they are educated.

The heirs of Brown do not have another moment to lose. We have it within our power to deliver, at last, the unfulfilled promise of Brown. School choice should be the right of every American parent.