Sixty-two years ago this month, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex or national origin. Prior to the Act of 1964, African-Americans faced enormous challenges that were permissible by law including: discrimination in employment, less access to quality housing, disenfranchisement, as well as continued struggles to integrate public schools 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. One of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act led to greater social and economic mobility for African-Americans across the nation and banned racial discrimination, providing greater access to resources for women, religious minorities, African-Americans and low-income families. Additionally, the Act paved the way for subsequent civil rights legislation for African-Americans and other minority groups including the removal of discriminatory barriers to voting ( Voting Rights Act of 1965), protection from discrimination when Americans are renting, buying or paying for housing ( Fair Housing Act of 1968), and specific protections under the law for Americans with disabilities ( Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). Despite the tremendous progress our country has made since 1964, the Civil Rights Act must continue to shape our nation's definition of and access to equal opportunity. In commemoration of the signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans has highlighted five reasons the Civil Rights Act still matters today.
1. Educational disparities still exist for African-American studentsData released in June 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights highlights opportunity gaps in public schools across the nation. For example, Black K-12 students are 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as compared to White students in the same grade. Disproportionate rates of suspension also exist for students with disabilities. African-American female students are 6 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than any other group of girls. Harsh school discipline policies that result in school expulsion and suspension have a detrimental effect on students and schools, including, but not limited to: reducing the time of classroom instruction and in school social interactions, removing students' access to resources such as school lunches or after school programming, and negatively impacting the school climate. Most importantly—harsh disciplinary practices push African-American and Latino students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system, which is known as the " school-to-prison pipeline." Schools and communities must rethink, evaluate and remove policies or practices that are discriminatory to ensure all students are receiving a high quality education in schools where they feel safe and supported. Ensuring that students in all schools across the nation have access to and are enrolled in rigorous coursework is also a critical component to ensuring educational equity. This includes access to high-level math and science courses. Disparities in course availability and enrollment leads to challenges in career entrance, readiness and success. Maximizing educational opportunities from early learning through post-secondary success ensures that all students—despite race, national origin, gender, ability, sexuality, or religion—are equipped to and are supported in overcoming academic or socio-economic barriers to a quality education.
2. Community-Building ResourcesThe national commitment to the Civil Rights Act and desegregation galvanized efforts to integrate schools. Today, school integration has never been more important. "Like math and reading, like science and social studies, and the arts, diversity is no longer a luxury," said Education Secretary John B. King Jr. addressing the National PTA. With the recent Supreme Court Fisher v. University of Texas ruling, which upheld affirmative action, institutions of higher education, among other institutions, must revisit and improve admission policies and practices to better support racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity and integration. Early childhood education, elementary and secondary schools also have a role to play in ensuring diversity among teachers and leaders. Deepening racial and economic resegregation in schools and universities has disparate outcomes that result in under resourced and underperforming schools, disparities in teaching quality, as well as limitations to post-secondary education and career opportunities. Diversity matters and strengthens communities. Schools and institutions that are diverse and inclusive encourage communities and students to work together to solve seemingly intractable problems.
3. Opportunity Gaps Cause Achievement GapsThe National Council on Educational Statistics (NCES) defines achievement gaps as the imbalance that occurs when one group of students outperforms another group by a significant margin. African-American and non-White low-income students still lag far behind their White, middle class peers in reading and math proficiency, high school graduation, and rate of college completion. The persistent gap in achievement is caused by a gap in opportunities due to systemic and institutional inequalities in resources and supports that have been shown to improve educational outcomes, such as high quality preschool, school funding, and an experienced teaching staff. A key factor in closing opportunity and achievement gaps is ensuring African-American children and families have access to high quality early learning care and education programs and support systems. Parents, families and communities can support early learning by engaging in activities that build critical cognitive, social and emotional skills. Using dance, music and art to stimulate interest in learning, and maintaining regular routines for reading and story time can also promote language and motor skill development. To ensure that African-Americans are not limited by persistent opportunity gaps, investments in high-quality early learning such as the national push for universal pre-K is essential to building a foundation for development, learning, academic success, and productive citizenry. Ultimately, a solid early education paves the way for long-term success and moves us forward to closing opportunity and achievement gaps.
4. Equal Opportunity, Equal RecognitionThe significance of the Civil Rights Act cannot be overstated. The Act led to greater equality for women, LGBTQ persons, individuals with a disability and immigrants. The Civil Rights Act also influenced the implementation of educational polices that emphasized equity in education such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and later, the 2015 reauthorization—Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Of the approximately 50 million students in our nation's public schools, African-American students represent 15% of the total population. Together, English learners and students with disabilities make up 24 percent of the student population. In renewing our commitment to civil rights, schools must meet the unique needs of all students so they might thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. Educational policies that recognize, honor and support students' race, religion, abilities, sexual or gender orientation, or home language is a meaningful way to honor the civil rights of diverse students.
5. Schools Cannot Do It AloneToday's civil rights movement must be led by all caring and concerned adults. There are no bystanders in the work of ensuring we live up to our founding principles of equality and the pursuit of opportunity. Access to opportunity should not be predicated or constrained by genetic code or zip code. Educational opportunities, however, must be supported by cross-agency policies and collaborative practices that lead to thriving students, productive citizens, and successful communities across our country. New laws and provisions should be authorized to increase access to safe and affordable housing for children and families, provide greater avenues for adult and youth employment, increase access to nutrition and transportation, as well as reformed criminal justice policies that restore individuals and communities. President Obama's Stronger Together proposal (2016) is a step in the right direction. Stronger Together encourages schools and communities to create strong voluntary, community-based plans to assist local school districts and to develop innovative strategies to achieve equity and high achievement. Creating a well-rounded infrastructure with adequate resources expands learning opportunities and fulfills every students' civil right to an excellent education. These are only a few important ways that we can continue the work of ensuring equity and strengthening communities and our country. We encourage you to identify ways to use your time, talents, and treasures to support the learning and development of all children.
An original version of this post appeared on nbcblk as Editorial: Education is the Civil Right.
Andrene Jones-Castro is a graduate intern at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and is a doctoral student studying education policy at the University of Texas at Austin.