The history of conservatives and race in this country often has been one of using philosophically unorthodox means to achieve the overarching conservative principle of equality of opportunity.
This weekend’s anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling is a reminder that we still need that creative pursuit of principle.
Perhaps the greatest example of conservative use of nonconservative means in the pursuit of equality is the Emancipation Proclamation. The Constitution provided President Lincoln with no specific authority to relieve Southern slaveholders, whom he still considered to be Americans, of what were then their property rights. However, it was the critical first step in establishing a vision of equality of opportunity for blacks, and Lincoln had the moral courage to take it.
More recently, conservatives have championed federal resources for school vouchers for minority students. This is at odds with the standard conservative position that education is a local matter. Yet, despite this and our current Democratic-led government’s and liberals’ general predisposition against school-choice solutions for minority children, it is the only way many of these children would ever have a real chance at an equal opportunity to obtain many fundamental life skills and learning.
The reason is our public school system. Fifty-five years ago, the Supreme Court found in Brown that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional because, in reality, it meant separate but unequal. Despite the passage of more than a half century, our public-education system is still failing to provide millions of Americans with an equal opportunity to learn.
The statistics make devastatingly clear that minority students face lower expectations and more unqualified teachers than their white peers. More than 70 percent of math teachers in America’s high-minority middle schools lack even a college minor in math or a math-related field. Nationally, teachers in high-minority schools are almost twice as likely to be inexperienced as teachers in low-minority schools.
The results of this inequality shouldn’t be surprising. By the time they near graduation, black and Latino teenagers have math and reading skills no higher than those of white middle school students. Less than 60 percent of the nation’s black and Latino students graduate from high school with their peers - and more than half of all black males drop out.
The long-term impact of this inequality shouldn’t be surprising. The poverty rate for families headed by dropouts is more than twice that of families headed by high school graduates. Over a lifetime, dropouts earn $260,000 less than high school graduates.
What may surprise conservatives is that in the 21st century, this is no longer simply a local matter - it’s a national concern. Our failure to provide educational equality for minorities is dragging down the competitiveness of the entire American work force, with a broad cost in jobs and prosperity.
Because we are educating our minority students so unequally, America’s 15-year-olds as a whole ranked 25th in math and 21st in science out of students in 30 countries participating in a 2006 international assessment. In a global economy where capital can chase opportunity to every corner of the world, America is looking less and less like a good place to set up shop and hire. This could costs us as much as 4.5 percent of unrealized additional gross domestic product over two decades - millions of jobs never created.
These outcomes are the opposite of the promise envisioned by the court in Brown. Improving equality within our education system requires a national effort to raise standards so minorities and whites in every school district are challenged with high, consistent expectations. It means using federal incentives to ensure qualified teachers are in every classroom. Finally, it must include giving all children the time and support they need to learn.
Sunday, the Brown decision matures to 55 years of age. Conservatives should consider this time a chance to further commit ourselves to the effort of bringing meaningful change in quality education for all students.
After all, equality in education is equality of opportunity - a core conservative principle. While the initiatives needed to achieve that equality sometimes may seem less than orthodox, the result unquestionably is consistent with conservative values.
These proposals may not be the means conservatives would prefer, but the inequality of opportunity that exists without them should be unacceptable. If conservatives would support heterodox education-reform tactics to achieve the orthodox principle of equality of opportunity, as we have with such success in the past, we could make a difference.
Marc Lampkin is executive director of Strong American Schools (www.strongamericanschools.org).