More than 60 years ago, after the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, our nation had the opportunity to put separate but equal behind us. Although we thankfully no longer live in a society of racially segregated cinemas, restrooms, and lunch counters, far too many students of color, (and other underserved children) are currently educated in a system where the color of their skin, what language they speak, their household income, their physical or mental disability, or their zip code ultimately determine their access to an education. 

For the first time in American history, the majority of students within the American public school system are students of color and yet the educational equity that Brown promised is still far from a reality. According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights data collection, Black, Latino, American Indian, and Alaska Native students are more likely to attend schools with high concentrations of inexperienced teachers. Only a third of high schools with high numbers of Black and Latino students offer calculus, compared to 56 percent of high schools with low numbers of these students.

That’s not all. Students of color are more likely than White students to be suspended one or more times. Students with disabilities are more likely than any other student to be secluded or physically restrained. And Black and Latino students, English learners, and students with disabilities are less likely to take an Advanced Placement class or be enrolled in a gifted and talented program than White students.

At The Leadership Conference Education Fund and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, we work to transform American public education so that all young people attend and are fully included in responsive, welcoming, rigorous, and fairly resourced schools that prepare all of them, beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout their K-12 years, for college and career.

We believe that educational equity is both a critical civil and human right and foundational to the exercise of all other rights, and that all students are capable of high academic achievement and deserve adequate and equitable resources to help them attain that goal.

And one way we are doing that is by empowering and engaging parents of our most vulnerable students, as well as working with local leaders and civil rights groups, in the fight to improve their child’s elementary and secondary education and helping them to hold school systems accountable when it comes to their children’s future. 

The reality is that when it comes to a child’s education, parents truly care and want to be involved — Black and Latino parents, especially. When asked what qualities make a great school, 92 percent of Black parents and family members and 88 percent of Latino parents and family members said a school that welcomes parent feedback and is responsive to their concerns, according to our first-annual “New Education Majority” poll[i] released earlier this year.

Parents have priorities and schools should pay attention to them. Great teachers, the safety of the child in the school, and academic rigor are three of the biggest priorities for Black and Latino parents. They know that their children’s schools get less funding and that when low-income students of color succeed, it is largely due to two things: their own hard work in the classroom and support from family at home.  

Now is the time for schools to take advantage of the passion and energy that exists among new majority parents who have high expectations of their children’s futures. And with all the changes that will come as a result of the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), schools can make this happen.

ESSA is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. ESEA was developed in response to the demands of communities during the Civil Rights Movement that the federal government do more to address poverty and limited educational opportunity for people of color.

A fundamental piece of the law requires each school district to set aside at least one percent of its Title I funds for parent and family engagement activities, and districts must actively include parents and family members in decisions regarding how these funds are spent. To create a more equitable school system, the system is legally obligated to include new education majority communities and establish policies that support them. The question right now is—will they do so?

States like Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, and Oregon held listening tours across their states to hear from parents and communities, which is encouraging. But the real test of whether or not they’ve truly understood what parents and communities want will come when they release their state accountability plans in 2017. It will be critical that these plans identify the schools that need more resources and help to equitably serve all their students – and, crucially, that states actually provide what those schools and students need. That will mean money. That also will mean teachers, books, technology, higher-level courses, and other resources that we all know low-income students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities often lack.

“The job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr. 

Educational opportunity has never been equally available to all students in the United States without regard to race, ethnicity, home language, family income, gender, or disability. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced that “the job of the school is to teach so well that family background is no longer an issue.” Far too many African-American, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Native American, low-income, English-learning students,and those with disabilities attend schools that fail to meet their needs and prepare them for success in postsecondary education and life. Moreover, the education decision-making process itself has rarely included their families and communities to any meaningful degree and has failed to represent the priorities and interests of children most affected by educational inequities.

Each and every day The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and organizations of like ours, including the National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza, remember and hold dear the words of Dr. King as we work toward providing the knowledge and tools parents of marginalized students can use in the battle for educational equity. We cannot hope to maintain our status as the most advanced and dynamic industrialized country in the world if we fail to highly educate a majority of our children. All children in America, regardless of their demographic, deserve access to a first-class education, and it is indisputably our duty to provide it for them.

With the massive changes that ESSA will bring, we have never had a better opportunity to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, Dr. King and the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement than we do right now. We need only seize it. 

For additional information, check out our Educational Equity Toolkit.

Alicia Smith
Alicia Smith is a communications assistant at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Before joining The Leadership Conference, Alicia wrote for Blavity, an online community of news and social content for Black millennials. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Media Studies.