Published on Friday, May 21, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Rhetoric for Kids, Money for War
by Derrick Z. Jackson
IT WAS EASY to get the mistaken impression that the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court to outlaw segregated schools was a really big deal on Capitol Hill, even to Republicans. The presumptive Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, flew to Topeka, Kan., the site of the case, to say: "We honor the legacy of Brown by reaffirming the value of inclusion, of equality, and diversity in our schools and in our life all across this nation, by opening the doors of opportunity so that more of our young people can stay in school and out of prison."
Not to be outdone, President Bush arrived after Kerry and said: "The habits of racism in America have not all been broken. . . . While our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are still not equal in opportunity and excellence. Justice requires more than a place in a school. Justice requires that every school teach every child in America."
Republican congressional leaders echoed Bush. Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who was in Topeka with Bush, issued a statement declaring that thanks to the Brown decision, "no longer is segregation an accepted, let alone celebrated, way of life. . . . We hail the courage of those who led us forward." House Speaker Dennis Hastert said: "As a former history teacher, I've taught civil rights and racial disparities in America. As speaker I still recognize those rights and disparities. I'm proud the US Congress looks to quell racial disparities and uplift the diversity of America to make opportunity more of a reality than a mere privilege."
Two days later, Hastert's House rendered the rhetoric meaningless. The Republicans, on a near party-line vote, approved a $2.4 trillion budget. The budget would provide $421 billion for defense, a 7 percent increase. That does not include the $50 billion more in fresh supplemental money for the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Homeland Security budget will increase 15 percent to $31 billion. Hastert's House approved $55 billion in tax cuts.
Meanwhile, domestic spending across the board would be frozen at $369 billion. Education would be a shuffling game of killing some literacy programs to barely increase others. The House would give a measly $1 billion more to fund the No Child Left Behind Act, which is supposed to allow children at so-called failing schools to escape to better schools. Even at a proposed $13.3 billion, No Child Left Behind would still be badly underfunded.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, last week released a report that concluded that funding of No Child Left Behind has in four years fallen $32 billion below what Congress authorized. "Moreover," the report said, "this is a conservative estimate, because it is unclear how much it will cost states and localities to meet all of the new mandates in this law." The center warns that the chronic underfunding may prove particularly devastating to the very states that need the support the most: the poorest states where more federal money is needed. For instance, the cost of federal policies as a percentage of the state budget is significantly more in high-poverty states like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana than for wealthier states.
While the military gets a 7 percent increase, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which makes it the law that children with learning issues must be assessed for individualized education plans, is in such a state of abandonment that funding has fallen $40 billion behind what the federal government should have spent. The government is supposed to be paying 40 percent of the extra costs of special education. It currently is paying 19 percent.
As an exclamation point to the true priorities on Capitol Hill, the Senate last week voted to increase funding of the act. But while Bush has already received $166 billion in extra money for his failing invasion and occupation of Iraq and the House is ready to give him at least $50 billion more, the federal commitment to full funding of its 40 percent would not be achieved until 2011. Even that lame commitment was put in doubt when the Senate, in a related vote, defeated a measure to make the 2011 deadline mandatory.
Back in Topeka, Bush said: "Laws against racial discrimination must be vigorously enforced in education and housing and hiring and public accommodation." But when it comes to voting for an education act that is supposed to guarantee accommodations for children with learning issues, Republican John Sununu said, "Placing funding on autopilot rarely, if ever, is the answer to the problems that we wrestle with in Congress." Saying this while Iraq funding is on autopilot makes it clear that education is not the top issue Congress wrestles with.
The Brown decision was supposed to put America on the road to educational equality. It was, of course, hindered as states and localities hid for two decades behind the qualification that schools should be integrated with "all deliberate speed." Today, with the schools resegregated again, this time more along urban-suburban lines, Congress cannot be said to be moving with any speed at all. It is all but a deliberate snail. Bush said of black children in the 1950s who stood up to insults and physical assaults to integrate schools, "America is still grateful to every child who made that walk."
A truly grateful president, Congress, and America would be a unified force walking on autopilot toward equal education at a Pace much more significant than that of a snail.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.