Bob Franken

The Obamas’ Lesson from 1954

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” I certainly don’t have to remind anyone that’s the fundamental ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. I definitely don’t need to refresh the memories of Barack and Michelle Obama. Even so, as they decide on school for their daughters, in their new Washington, DC home, maybe it’s worth discussing again.

54 years ago the issue was racial segregation, but then and now, the issue is also economic segregation. The point was and is that when the children of the more privileged do not attend, their parents have no stake in the quality of a school, or in a school system… When they go elsewhere, those of less means are not as able to force officials to maintain high standards. They lack the clout and wherewithal.

When those who can afford the 20-thousand-plus dollar a year tuitions,send their kids to private schools, the inevitable happens: The quality of the public schools is allowed to deteriorate. As often as not, they become little more than warehouses, and dangerous ones at that. The families left behind don’t have the political ability to influence performance no matter how much they want to. Thus “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”.

We are losing so much. Public education was the foundation of the American middle class. What allowed this country to thrive, as it did in the postwar years, was the expectation that most of us could get the knowledge and tools to go out and compete in the adult world. As much as anything else, that nearly universal opportunity set us apart from the rest of the world.

An argument could be made that exclusive academies for the children of wealth give them such an unfair advantage, they make a mockery of the American Dream, and should be legislated out of existence. That’s not going to happen, and shouldn’t be the way we approach the problem. Those who send their children to private schools will tell you that no matter what their political or ethical feelings, those feelings are trumped by a desire to get the best for their kids and to make sure they are not in danger. It’s hard to argue against that.

But it also makes the point. Those in the middle and lower economic brackets love their families as much as anyone else. But, they can’t afford the expensive tuitions. So they’re left to worry each day whether their offspring are getting anything approaching a decent education, or even whether they’re safe.

Which brings us to the Obama family. It’s a sure thing that any public school where they enroll their daughters will instantly become first rate, on a par with all others in the area, no matter how much those others cost. Get the powerful involved, and the “inherently unequal” no longer is. Add to that the advantage, envisioned by the justices, of a diverse peer group instead of the narrow perspective they’d get surrounded only by children of wealth. Malia and Sasha Obama need exposure to more than the narrow values of such limited surroundings.

Unfortunately, it appears the Obamas are heading toward one of the private schools. That would be heading in the wrong direction. By choosing public education they would not only provide their daughters the benefit of wider experiences, they’d be setting an example for the entire country. That’s one of the jobs for any first family. Unfortunately, the Obama family looks like it’s preparing to turns its back on the principles of Brown. In doing so do they would continue to perpetuate a system where “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”.

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