by Brian Washington, photo: NEA President Dennis Van Roekel speaks at the Brown v Board rally
Bruce Smith first began speaking out against inequity when he attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and, since then, he hasn’t stopped.
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With a 50-year record of advocating for civil rights, it’s no surprise that Smith found himself at a rally this week marking the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of the nation’s public schools.
The retired educator, who spent years working as a reading specialist for middle and high school students in Virginia, joined other teachers, education support professionals, higher education faculty, parents, and community leaders Tuesday in front of the high court.
“I hope it [the rally] will draw some attention to the unfinished agenda of Brown v. Board,” said Smith. “We need to open people up to the fact that there is more work to do to provide quality public schools for all kids in America.”
The rally was sponsored, in part, by the National Education Association (NEA), which represents more than 3 million educators nationwide.
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, an Arizona math teacher [ed note: pictured at top], believes the future of public education stands at a critical juncture–one similar to the pre-Brown days. Nearly half of the nation’s students are low income; forty-four percent are either Black or Hispanic and both populations are concentrated in segregated schools.
Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision, we still see dramatic inequities and disparities in resources, programs, and opportunities for students across America,” said Van Roekel. “If ‘separate is inherently unequal’ then why have lawmakers at every level–local, state, and federal–failed to fix these inequities?
Smith believes part of the problem is state politicians who have sold out their constituents and, instead, have pledged their support to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is known for pushing education policies that foster inequity in our public schools.
Many of the wealthiest corporations in the world are members of ALEC, which uses its vast resources to shower state politicians across the country with expensive gifts, high-priced dinners at fancy restaurants, and vacation junkets at exotic resorts.
Those politicians who fall for the “ALEC treatment” become puppets who push the conservative, right-wing group’s education policies and proposals back home–legislation designed to benefit ALEC’s wealthy benefactors and turn a profit on the backs of students without any regard for their educational wellbeing.
For example, ALEC is a big supporter of vouchers and tuition tax credit schemes which use public dollars to subsidize tuition at private or religious schools. In addition to being costly to taxpayers, studies show such programs do not result in a better education for students.
Also, despite the claims made by ALEC and other voucher supporters, these programs usually don’t benefit the low-income students they are intended to serve. Those who end up getting vouchers are often already attending private schools and usually belong to families who can afford to pay the tuition.
Instead, this type of privatization often results in a system of private/religious schools that cater to those with means and public schools that are starved of resources and funding and, yet, are still expected to serve all students, including those with the greatest needs.
“We have to really understand why our schools are becoming segregated and what forces, like ALEC, are doing to create inequity in public education, especially for low income people and communities of color,” said Smith.
Hundreds of people attended Tuesday’s rally, which is part of a week-long nationwide call to action by the NEA, which includes more rallies in Wisconsin, Colorado, and several other locations.
Smith is hoping all the planned events leading up to the Brown anniversary, which is Sunday, May 17, will impact pro-public education activists in the same way that Tuesday’s rally affected him.
“It helps me focus on what the cause is,” said Smith. “It’s energizing but really it provides a focus and we have to pay attention because the dream before we integrated education is not nearly fulfilled. There are other issues besides statutory segregation that we have to overcome.”
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