Courts Are Failing Children on the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

As a mother of color, I have long looked to American courts to right wrongs and serve justice when systemic injustices continue to occur, especially in education. But I'm starting to wonder if I can still count on our courts to protect the rights of children the same way they protect special interest. Over the past year, I've watched justices from the court of appeals all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court issue decisions that hurt disadvantaged kids - particularly students of color.

When the Supreme Court decided, in Brown v. Board of Education, that all American children had a fundamental right to an effective education that would prepare them for life, it opened the door to educational opportunity for millions of black children. Since then, decades of bad education policy and court cases have chipped away at the promise made with Brown.

On March 29, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a split decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. That case was filed by a group of California teachers who are forced to pay fees every year to the teacher's union that then uses the money to advance policies, that in some cases, are not good for children and teachers.

What does this have to do with marginalized communities and students of color? Everything! The policies the California teacher plaintiffs object to directly and disproportionally affect students of color and low-income students. Policies like teacher tenure, last-in, first-out lay off practices, and school assignments based on years of service rather than effectiveness and student need ensure that our more inexperienced teachers end up in challenged schools, and promising young teachers get fired, even if they are doing well in a tough environment. In other words, disadvantaged schools don't get the rock-star teachers they need. Who attends challenged, disadvantaged schools in tough neighborhoods? Children of color and the poor.

I had the surreal experience of being in the courtroom the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Friedrichs case and it was clear to me that forcing teachers to fund union work advancing policies they disagree with was on its way out. But, with Justice Scalia's death, the fifth vote to end this practice went away. The Friedrichs teachers are trying hard to get the Court to hold the case until a new Justice is confirmed. I hope and pray they succeed because the educational wellbeing of children most in need depends on it-literally. Until then, how many more years will pass while our kids suffer under bad education policies funded by people who don't even believe all children should be educated equitably?

To add insult to the Friedrich's, turn of events, just a few weeks later, the California Court of Appeals overturned a positive lower court decision in Vergara v. California. The Vergara case is also a direct challenge to the policies that the Friedrichs teachers oppose. This case was brought by diverse students from low-income families who are challenging laws and policies that virtually guarantee students from their backgrounds will be in classrooms with less effective teachers.

If all children are guaranteed by state and federal constitutions an equal opportunity to have effective teachers, but there are known and identifiable policies preventing this guarantee from being realized, something has got to give and we must err on the side justice. We must choose to do what is right and that is to guarantee an equal opportunity that ensures effective teachers in every classroom.

Last year, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved measure to create public charter schools. The key words are "voter-approved". In a state where the achievement gap between children of color and white children is growing at a consistent rate, blocking school models that have proven they can close the opportunity gap is nothing less than immoral and irresponsible.

From Boston to Houston to Oakland to New York to Connecticut, we've watched hundreds of quality charter schools and other successful school models enroll students of color from tough neighborhoods and send a majority of them to college. If that's not delivering on the promise of Brown, I don't know what is. But, that didn't matter to the nine-justice Washington Supreme Court where only two of the members are not white (one is Hispanic and one is Asian-American).

To help stabilize our country's economy we must invest in our future workforce - our children!

The people in this country whose job is to even the scales of justice cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the injustice being done mostly to children of color and marginalized communities every day in America's schools. The Constitution does not end at the schoolhouse door.

In the Friedrichs case, some of the liberal Justices seemed worried about overturning a previous precedent. Shouldn't they be equally worried that doing nothing will continue the silent but deadly unconstitutional retreat from Brown?

When elected officials and decision makers--beholden to their supporters as they are--fail our children, the courts must step in. I know the issues presented in these cases are not easy. But when it comes to choosing between children who need schools that will prepare them for a successful future and help stabilize our country's economy or policies that benefit adults only and special interests, the choice is clear. We must choose Justice and Children every time!