Written by: Jamaal Smith
On May 17, 1954, a landmark decision was made when the United State Supreme Court ruled state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students as unconstitutional. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated that “separate educational facilities were inherently unequal,” and violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Brown decision was pivotal in the fight for integration during the Civil Rights era. The expectation was that ALL children would have equal access to quality education and opportunity, which should be a fundamental right, regardless of race. However, 62 years since the historic “great equalizer” decision, black and brown students are again the targets of racial inequality within the educational system.
Emma Brown, columnist for The Washington Post, recently reported that, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, “the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.” This study is holding true in the state of Wisconsin, as GOP lawmakers have devised laws that continue supporting “separate and unequal” practices. One of those strategies was the elimination of the Chapter 220 program, which allowed for students of color from high-poverty neighborhoods to attend schools in predominantly white suburban school districts. In addition, two Republican legislators, State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), created the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, a law intended to hand underfunded MPS schools to private, unaccountable operators. Cities like New Orleans and Detroit have been subjected to similar “Recovery Districts” with catastrophic results, but the commonality that exists between those cities and Milwaukee is that these laws are constantly imposed on black and brown communities without input. The OSPP legislation was passed in the middle of the night without a public hearing even taking place.
The OSPP legislation hands authority to a Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele with no college degree, who appointed Dr. Demond Means, Superintendent of the predominantly white Mequon-Thiensville School District, as the Commissioner over a predominately nonwhite district. Abele and Means created a proposal that claims MPS can still remain in tact even if one of the schools were moved under the OSPP district, which is inconsistent with the law. At a recent debate with MTEA Executive Director Lauren Baker at Marquette University, Rep. Kooyenga even stated that he was not a supporter of Dr. Means’ proposal because it counters what was written in the legislation. What is most disconcerting with Abele and Dr. Means is that they both admit the OSPP legislation is an unjust law, but insist the democratically elected school board of MPS should give up local control of their publicly-funded schools. Based on this rational, Civil Rights leaders should not have fought against the injustices within Jim Crow because they were law, right. Or the Black Codes, which brought about involuntary labor on freed slaves for minor “infractions” passed by southern states after the Civil War.
Just as it was not acceptable to comply with an unjust law then, the same ideology should exist on unjust laws now. An unjust law is no law at all!
We must continue the fight against modern day segregation and racial discrimination within our education system. Our children deserve our efforts to stand up for their future just as those before us stood for ours. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the face of an obvious wrong, the time is now to stand and fight for what is right!