Are We Moving (Again) Towards Separate and Unequal?

February is Black History month. During this month let’s take time to reflect on African Americans’ long and ongoing march to freedom, social and economic equality. This month reminds us to be cognizant of our shortcomings as a nation and as a people. But most importantly, it reminds us of the great promise our nation holds and the need to continue to strive for that “more perfect union.” As educators we are privileged to be in a position to help realize that dream by offering genuine educational opportunity to our students regardless of race, social or economic class. Unfortunately, our ability to achieve this is being compromised. Education, long the great American equalizer, is in jeopardy. The promise of equal access to higher education begun by the Truman administration in 1947 seems to have become contested ground for African Americans and other minorities just as they have entered the higher education system in significant numbers. One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that funding for community colleges has drifted downward concurrent with the fall in white enrollment. In 1994, 73% of community college enrollment nationally was white, by 2006 it stood at 58%. Here at Nassau Community College white enrollment stood at 52% in 2003 and by  2013 was closer to 42%. Moreover, from 1999-2009 the budget (adjusted for inflation) at public universities has risen by a whopping $4,000 per student while at community colleges, on average, it has increased by a mere $1 (from the study: “Bridging the Higher Education Divide”).

Now, Governor Cuomo and others across the nation, want to change our mission as well. The proposal: community colleges as “training programs;” direct feeders into local and regional businesses using programs designed by these same businesses at the expense of student choice as well as access to a liberal arts education. The implication for our students is staggering and should be viewed in a historical context. Such a system will reintroduce a separate (tiered) curriculum, a practice akin to one that was rejected in 1954 with the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. The implementation of this plan underscores what Jeff Strohl, co-author of a recent Georgetown University study on higher education found already exists: an “American post secondary system that increasingly has become a dual system of racially separate pathways…” It is clear that proposals like this from our governor will institutionalize a two-tiered educational system. The victims: African Americans, Hispanics and others from under-resourced communities.

The struggle for full equality for African Americans and other minorities has been long and is not over. We, as educators, must also continue to fight for equality of educational opportunity for all students; if not us, then who?