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The schools to which children return are not equal

Soon the dog days of summer will wane and this once again strange summer, still haunted by the virus, will come to a close. Our children will finally return to their brick and mortar schools, to their classrooms, desks, friends, and above all to their teachers (aka in-person instructors).

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From K-12 they will arrive with nuggets of apprehension, leavened by anticipation and excitement, eager to be back after a long, seemingly interminable year — for some isolating, often fraught, weeks and months cobbled together, redefined by a grim once-in-a-century pandemic. It wasn’t school. It was something else.

But what is beyond comprehension, given the extraordinary wealth of our nation, is that the schools to which they will return are not equal. And while America spent much of the summer of 2020 deep in a debate about policing and the racial inequities of our criminal justice system, what eluded our attention (and has for generations) is our unjust education system.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicolas Kristof pointed out, “We in the United States embrace a public education system based on local financing that ensures that poor kids go to poor schools and rich kids go to rich schools.” This inequity will impact the lives of millions of children (this fall it is projected that there will be 50.7 million children enrolled in 23,882 public schools). As a result of this anachronistic form of funding, each school district mirroring its socio-economic health or decline, our schools are not only unequal (some crumbling, others pristine), but also represent a form of de facto segregation.

Kristof references Rucker Johnson, professor of public policy at U.C. Berkeley, who points out that since 1988, American schools have become increasingly segregated by race. Roughly 15 percent of Black and Hispanic students attend what can only be called apartheid schools that have less than 1% white students.

Johnson’s data bring to mind the landmark decision made by the Supreme Court in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling that codified the constitutional doctrine of racial segregation, meaning that as long as segregated facilities were equal in quality they were lawful. The decision was soon referred to as “separate but equal,” and it legitimized the attempts by many states to re-establish white supremacy after all attempts at reconstruction were abandoned by Washington. In other words, Plessy was judged not to be a violation of the 14th Amendment, which established the legal equality of whites and Blacks, and was soon used to justify the barring of Blacks from hospitals, restaurants, transportation, drinking fountains, restrooms, jobs, housing, hotels, personal relationships, and, of course, schools. It became the embodiment of Jim Crow, and its impact on children of color was insidious and deeply reprehensible, for, of course, those schools created for Black children were never intended to be equal, not in condition, supplies, textbooks or instruction.

Even when the Supreme Court heard the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the justices found that Plessy was unconstitutional, de facto segregation continued as has Jim Crow school funding, abetted by unequal housing, job opportunities and chronic health issues (an example would be that children of color have four times the rate of asthma as do white children, a condition that contributes to absenteeism).

To find solutions to what is a profoundly complex and attitudinal web of racial inequality in America will require more than just a summer of protest (no matter how egregious and shocking the reason), but the creation of a number of governmental commissions (akin to that which was just established to investigate Jan. 6), dedicated to a comprehensive analysis and national dialogue regarding what remains not only a de facto and unconstitutional segregation of our schools, but of our society.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.