Fifty Years after Brown v. BOE

Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement started in earnest when the Supreme Court handed down its revolutionary verdict in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Declaring that separate rarely is equal, the court, in a unanimous decision, ordered schools integrated and opened the door to education and opportunity to millions of children across the country. Simply put, it was one of the proudest days in American history.

It’s because education is exactly that sort of moral obligation that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s lawsuit against the state is so historic. CFE rightly argued that, like in Brown, New York effectively has an unequal education system. The governor spent more than $12 million fighting this decision, arguing that an eighth grade education is as far as the state’s obligation to its students goes, but the court rejected those arguments and told the state to find a fairer way of funding schools. If the state government cannot do so by July 30, the court will impose its own system.

My Assembly colleagues and I see this as more than a mandate; it’s an opportunity and a responsibility as well – a chance to correct the glaring deficiencies in the way we fund our schools. In so doing, we can radically improve the lives of countless children and put New York on a stronger footing as we march into the information economy. For too long high-need school districts like Brentwood and Central Islip have had to deal with over-crowded classrooms and too few essential programs.

If only Governor Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno saw things this way our children would be better off. Governor Pataki showed just how disinterested he was in leveling the playing field by waiting until two months after the court’s decision to appoint yet another commission to issue yet another report on school financing. Worse, he set a March 1 deadline for the commission’s report – which is two months after his budget proposal was due – and then issued them a further extension. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Bruno suggested that state government give up entirely and let the courts come up with a plan – a plan that, because the CFE case dealt specifically with New York City schools, would only benefit New York City.

That’s not acceptable. Rather than sit back and allow the courts to create a system that will only benefit some students, we must see to it that all schools statewide get their fair share. That’s exactly what the Assembly is fighting for, working to come up with a solution that, like a rising tide, will lift all boats. If the governor and Senate were willing to seriously commit to this challenge, we could come up with a solution that benefits the entire state rather than pass our obligation onto the court.

It’s important that we look back this week and not only see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we have to go when it comes to educational opportunity. The battle started with Brown v. Board of Education, but it didn’t end there. Only when all children have access to quality education will we be able to say that this landmark case is truly part of our past.