Segregated and 'Adequate' Or Equal and Excellent?

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Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Urban Education, By Gaston Alonso, Noel S. Anderson, Celina Su and Jeanne Theoharis. New York University Press, $22.

That urban schools suffer while suburban schools thrive is a time-worn generalization about American education. The U.S. Constitution may guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – yet the explicit guarantee of an education for the nation’s citizens is entirely absent. The mandate to educate is left to individual states, which make and interpret education law, with results as varied as the nation’s contours.

More than 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the debate over equal access to public schooling persists. Gaps between the affluent and the impoverished, students of color and their white and Asian peers, and among urban and suburban districts – what sociologist Michael Eric Dyson characterized as “educational neoapartheid” – challenge the ideal of a free public education for all, espoused in Brown, and continue to undermine the lives of the students most at risk of academic failure.

Beginning even with its title, “Our Schools Suck” aims to give voice to some of the youth caught up in the maelstrom of 21st century urban education, within a critical framework of the cultural values and larger socioeconomic forces that shape the debate. It also asks, most critically, whether Brown’s focus was integration or educational equity. Does the outcome of that U.S. Supreme Court case ensuring “opportunity of an education…on equal terms” imply “general and uniform,” “thorough and efficient,” “sound and basic,” and “adequate” schooling – as many state constitutions mandate? Or does it promise the universal civic right of all students to “an equal and excellent education” – a far higher bar?

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