October 01, 2011

Introduction - The Unfinished Work of Thurgood Marshall: Addressing the Educational Achievement Gap

by Kay H. Hodge

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954)

Over fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education that education is not only essential for every child, but also for the future of our democracy. The promise that every child has the absolute right to an education has become the driving force of our society. However, for many minority children today, the promise of Brown is now being lost, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. An unprecedented number of minority children drop out of school without graduating from high school. Even more troubling is the fact that more minority children attend schools today that are effectively segregated by race than ever before in our nation’s history. Think about that.

As the achievement gap continues to grow, there are issues that need to be addressed immediately, and among the most critical are the great disparities in resources as well as policy and organizational failures. We, as lawyers, have an opportunity, and, as I see it, an obligation, to step up and step in. From the Father of American Education, Horace Mann, to Thurgood Marshall, lawyers have played a critical role in shaping and reshaping America’s educational system. Before we lose another generation of children, lawyers must renew their efforts to ensure that the education system serves all children without regard to their race or economic circumstances.

For lawyers, our involvement means reengaging in our communities. Historically, lawyers were key players in every city or town. They were active participants in city or town governance, served on nonprofit boards, and were involved in virtually all aspects of daily and civic life of society. It is difficult to pinpoint where that change started to take place and we stopped actively being a lawyer outside of our own office. Whether it was the need for billable hours, the increasingly difficult work/life balance issues, or, given today’s economy, the need to be involved in more practical matters, lawyers are no longer as involved in their cities, towns, and communities as they used to be. That must change. The complex and difficult choices required by educational reform need the skills that a lawyer brings to the table.

Lawyers have a certain skill set that no other professionals have. We are thinkers. Problem solvers. Masters of our practice area. Every day, on behalf of clients, lawyers regularly confront complex issues, analyze them, and formulate solutions. Every day, lawyers help clients understand their options and resolve their disputes. And every day, we help bridge the gap between clients in seriously disparate positions. We already have the skills necessary to make an impact and begin closing the educational achievement gap. It is now just a matter of doing it.

There are numerous ideas for how to make our educational system more effective. The kind of leadership that is necessary to take on this task will require lawyers to become involved beyond volunteering for one day in a classroom or making a speech on graduation day. We need to learn about the extraordinarily complex issues involved in our educational system and come together to implement the change that needs to happen. Meaningful change will need to be widespread and span across the political spectrum. It will require knowledge of the many issues that confront our public education system, and we will need involvement in all areas, including the governance of schools, the policy development process, and, as necessary, litigation.

Although this nation currently spends billions of dollars each year on public education, that number is insufficient to address the fact that today more and more children are growing up in poverty and many do not have the family support that is essential to learning the basic skills of communication and personal qualities, like persistence and everyday survival. As lawyers, we see the result of our failure to educate our children in the work that we do. We represent young people without a high school diploma caught in the juvenile and criminal courts. We represent clients who are looking for better-educated workers and finding it difficult. We represent clients who are opening offices and factories outside the United States to be closer to the educated workforce they need. We see the end result day after day, and we have to recognize the need to change it down to its very core.

I encourage all of you to attend the upcoming IRR Spring Conference from May 3 through May 5, 2012, at Boston University Law School, for which registration is now open on the Section’s website. This conference will bring together respected experts in the fields of law and education who will help identify ways lawyers can get involved to make equal educational opportunity a reality. There are many, I can assure you of that.

We have to remember that, as lawyers, our entire professional being is based on the importance of education. It is undeniable that we would not be lawyers if education had not been a driving force in our lives. Change cannot happen overnight. The old adage that it is not a sprint but a marathon may describe the time it will take to reshape our educational system. But we have to recognize that change needs to happen and it needs to begin happening now.

It is time to finish what we started. Who will join me?

Kay H. Hodge

Kay H. Hodge is chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (2011-2012).