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Secretary of Education Rod Paige
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court case and the second anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the education reform legislation that President George W. Bush has referred to as the “cornerstone of my administration,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige addressed AEI on January 7 about the progress that has been made in combating racism in education.
Paige discussed the legally institutionalized racism that existed prior to the Court’s prohibition of segregation. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson codified discrimination on the basis of “established customs and traditions” upheld for the sake of “public peace and good order.” Growing up in rural Mississippi, the future secretary witnessed segregation in schools, churches, law enforcement, and indeed every aspect of daily life for African-Americans.
In Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” in education unconstitutional, yet discrimination continued. Paige stated that this ruling made America “a stronger, more equitable, more just nation,” but he also described resistance to the decision in many states as “a second civil war.” Many districts petitioned courts to delay the effects of the Supreme Court ruling, and institutional segregation did not end in some states until twenty years later. Despite the slow pace of change, Justice Earl Warren’s words eventually prevailed: “Education is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him (or her) for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. . . . [Education] is a right which must be made available on equal terms.”
Inequality of opportunity stubbornly persists in education today despite the dismantling of state-sponsored segregation. Paige noted that President Bush recognized the existence of a two-tiered education system in which many receive a world-class education while others languish in failing schools, their future success thwarted by what the president has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The problem is not merely a matter of funding, for the nation spends more per student than any other country in the world–an aggregate total of $488 billion on elementary and secondary education alone in 2003. Paige noted that millions of students lack quality education and cannot read or perform mathematics at their grade level despite continual promotion.
Paige argued that No Child Left Behind, with its underlying premise that nothing can truly compensate for wasted time in failing schools or lack of opportunities upon graduation, addresses these issues. Calling the legislation “the next logical step after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ended segregation and the 1964 Civil Rights Act promised an equitable society,” he noted that the recent legislation implements an accountability plan with high expectations for schools and students alike. Parents now receive report cards on how schools perform and what qualifications teachers possess, in addition to alternative options for students attending “high-need” schools.
Likewise, Paige contended that opponents of No Child Left Behind, like the adversaries of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, stand on “the wrong side of history.” Helping children to learn should be the primary goal, and as Paige noted, “That is something that teachers, parents, clergy education advocates, civil rights leaders, government officials, business people, and everyone should want and should demand.”
Paige concluded that “racism cannot end as long as there is an achievement gap” and advocated setting lofty goals for our school and students.
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