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Is Public Education Broken?

The Atlantic posted an online article last week by Mom.me contributor Tracy Brown Hamilton called "Solving the Problem of Amsterdam's 'Black' and 'White' Schools." Huh, I thought to myself. From the headline alone it sounds a lot like the problems that Chicago's public school system, the system that I entrust my son's education to, faces. After reading the article, it is clear that Amsterdam and Chicago are not alone in the difficulties attached to the implementation of true school integration.

In a landmark Supreme Court decision, 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, legal segregation (based on race) in America's public schools was struck down, mandating integration. The defense in that decision argued the "separate, but equal" clause, a doctrine that had held firm since 1896. The highest court in America had determined that it was illegal not to provide access to a quality public education based on the color of one's skin.

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So, yes, it is now illegal in the U.S. to prevent a black child from attending a primarily white public school. And the converse, of course, is also true—it is illegal to prevent a white child from attending a primarily black school. Except for one thing: white kiddos and their parents are not scrambling to gain access to majority black schools, whether those schools are in Amsterdam or Chicago.

See how that works?

What Amsterdam's public schools are finding, as reported by Hamilton, is that while "integration is every child's right," there is a long history of supporting the freedom of educational choice most white Dutch parents take for granted over the press to integrate. The ones who suffer in this equation, of course, are the minority students. In Amsterdam, that is primarily Turkish or Moroccan immigrants. In Chicago, that is primarily black or Latino students.

The common denominator between the students who suffer most across that vast Atlantic Ocean, though, be it in Amsterdam or Chicago, is an economic one. Children who find themselves on the bottom of the economic totem pole are institutionally and organically segregated from the advantages a quality public education can provide. And yet, there is no push to correct this segregation through legal means.

It seems that just as Oliver Brown, the parent behind the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, bucked the status quo based on racial lines and demanded access to a quality public education for his child, we need to do the same based on economic lines.

To the contrary, the disparity between the type and quality of public education received truly is a "black" and "white" issue—both racially and economically. It cannot be disputed that the quality of public school education in Chicago is very often determined by geographic location. My guess is that it is the same in your community, no matter where you may live.

My family lives on the north side of Chicago and our son tested into a selective enrollment school. The quality of education he receives is in no way mirrored by a similarly aged student on Chicago's south or west side attending a neighborhood school. Why? And how is that profound disparity not only not challenged in the courts but protected by them? After reading Hamilton's article about the struggles in Amsterdam public education, I suddenly feel much more European.

What has occurred naturally after efforts to mandate integration failed (busing, anyone?) is this economic segregation, which, of course, also happens to cut across racial lines. It does not require a rocket scientist to understand that people of color, no matter where they live, are not accorded the same access to quality public education. And clearly this is a matter of human nature that transcends continents and cultures, as we see it displayed in both Amsterdam and my own community in Chicago.

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It seems that just as Oliver Brown, the parent behind the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, bucked the status quo based on racial lines and demanded access to a quality public education for his child, we need to do the same based on economic lines. Hell, the law has already been written. Now we just need to apply it to economics as well as race.

Image via Getty Images

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