Harry and Eliza Briggs’ school bus to opportunity


As we celebrate another notable anniversary of the civil rights era – Thurgood Marshall's 1954 victory in the five cases we know, collectively, as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education – we should take a moment to thank Harry and Eliza Briggs and their neighbors in Clarendon County, S.C. Their efforts to assure that Clarendon County's Black children were provided a school bus, just as were Caucasian children, were the foundation for Briggs v. Elliott, one of the five Brown cases and the beginning of the end for legally-sanctioned, public school segregation in this nation.

I know about Mr. and Mrs. Briggs from my own family's history, as well as from my legal training. My parents, Robert and Ruth Cummings, grew up in Clarendon County – the very place where the White and Black doll experiments of Dr. Kenneth Clark helped to convince the United States Supreme Court that racially segregated schools could never be considered "equal" under our Constitution.

My parents moved from Clarendon County to South Baltimore as a young, newly-married couple. They were determined that their own children would have the benefit of the empowering education that they had been denied.

I recall these beginnings – the progress that can be traced to everyday Americans like Harry and Eliza Briggs – because of the sharp contrast in educational opportunity today, graphically portrayed by the National Education Association at http://www.nea.org. In "Still Separate, Still Unequal? Brown v. Board 60 Years Later," we are confronted by a hard truth. Today, millions of American children remain mired back in the 1950s, both educationally and economically.

Sixty years after Brown, millions of American children are still waiting by the side of the road for Harry Briggs' school bus to take them to a better life. It is up to those of us who have survived and thrived to keep fighting for these children's right to a ride.

In this generation's struggle for educational opportunity, our courts – and far too many of my congressional colleagues – appear to be wearing ideological blindfolds. Confronted by human devastation of staggering proportions, they offer only abstract theories about the appropriate roles of our shared governmental institutions.

To paraphrase Jonathan Kozol's seminal work, Savage Inequalities, "There is a sense that they are skating over ice – and that the issues we must address are safely frozen underneath."

Opening their eyes to the realities of educational apartheid in our country is one level of our wider struggle for expanded support for our nation's public schools. It is the primary field of battle for those of us entrusted by our neighbors to represent them in Washington.

In the Congress, there are legitimate issues in our continuing debate over reauthorization of our nation's Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Yet, the American people should not be misled. Now, as in the past, the most basic fight about the federal role in public education is not about ideology. It's about money.

Closer to home, we who live in Maryland are fortunate that the O'Malley-Brown Administration has made K-12 education funding a high priority. Nevertheless, state-level budgetary constraints heighten the continuing importance of federal funding.

Even as we criticize (fairly, I believe) the ideological blinders of those who object to our call for expanded federal education funding, we who would expand that funding must also be clear-sighted. As many educators point out, more than expanded funding will be required to assure every American child the school bus ride to a better life that he or she deserves.

For parents, teachers, and the general public alike, we all must have high expectations of every child – and convey those high expectations in everything we do.

The trajectory of my own life would have been fundamentally different without the encouragement of an insightful elementary school teacher of mine, Mr. Hollis Posey, who believed in me and taught to my strengths.

This is why I realize that, far too often, we have allowed the challenges posed by economic deprivation to affect our expectations of what lower income children can achieve – if encouraged and given the chance.

As reported recently by Erica Green in the Baltimore Sun, a number of Baltimore City's public schools, educating high percentages of low-income students, nevertheless "… have consistently outperformed their peers around Maryland."

Green cites a study by Jason Botel, executive director of the Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now (http://www.marylandcan.org/research), that highlights eight "opportunity schools" that are teaching economically disadvantaged children.

In these urban schools, most of the students in almost every grade topped the statewide proficiency rates for both reading and math in 2012 and 2013. These educators appear to have found the keys to Harry & Eliza Briggs' school bus to opportunity. We would be wise to learn from their success.

Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

Harry and Eliza Briggs' school bus to opportunity

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