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Lessons from Little Rock

Last week, I had the chance to represent the Bar Association of Baltimore City Young Lawyers Division at the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a wonderful networking and learning opportunity. And, given our location, I found one particular CLE to be quite interesting and thought-provoking.

Before the actual panel discussion, our group was shown a 30-minute video about the Little Rock Nine and their first day of school at Little Rock Central High School in September 1957.  We were then escorted over by a Park Ranger to the campus and given a vivid description of what each of the nine brave students experienced that day. The school is still an operating high school, with a student body that is approximately 54 percent black and 43 percent white with students speaking about 24 different languages at home.

Little Rock Central High School

Little Rock Central High School

The CLE panel examined civil rights in voting and education. Janel George of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund spoke about current concerns in the field of education: the continued struggles over re-segregation of urban school districts; the future of affirmative action in higher education; the impact of increased emphasis on test scores; and the struggles over the core curriculum. She also discussed problems with the use of exclusionary and overly-punitive disciplinary practices that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the difficulties with charter and magnet schools (they do not resuscitate the failing schools).

This made me wonder how public schools in the Baltimore-Washington region have come along, as Maryland was one of the 17 states that practiced de jure segregation. A 2013 report from The Civil Rights Project showed a significant decrease in enrollment for white students, and substantial increase in public school enrollment for Latino students. In 2010-2011, the typical white student attended a school that was almost one-quarter low-income students, compared to the typical black student who attended a school that was 55 percent low-income and the typical Latino student whose school was about half low-income. A high percentage of Maryland’s black students (85.7 percent) and Latino students (78.1 percent) were enrolled in majority-minority schools. Almost a quarter of the state’s black students attended “apartheid” schools.

I found these statistics tragic given the fact that within less than a month after the Brown decision, Baltimore City Public Schools was one of the first school districts in the country to end de jure segregation and adopted the freedom of choice plan that ignored race and allowed any student to attend any school.

I know many people who do and will go through unreasonably long commutes in order to live in a particular school district to make sure their kids receive the best education possible without the exorbitant price tag. K-through-12 education is vital to this nation’s future and is something that needs to be addressed by local governments on a regular basis, not just during an election year.

Just another reason for you to get out and vote in local elections in addition to statewide. We shouldn’t need the Supreme Court to make these decisions for us.