Thursday, July 2, 2009

Civil Rights in Education

Today is the 45th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance, including public schools. Ten years prior, in 1954, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, finding that "racially segregated schools are inherently unequal."

Education has been called the civil rights issue of our generation. Although we have come a long way since Brown, the Civil Rights Act, the subsequent Education of the Handicapped Act, and other legislation, there are still disparities in education that affect minorities, children living in poverty or homelessness, and children with disabilities.

Disability advocates should always be aware of the civil rights movement as the foundation for what we now do. Following Brown vs. Board of Education, courts began to recognize that other types of segregation and seclusion also existed, and the issue of access to education became an issue for persons with disabilities. Parents began raising equal education opportunity as a right that existed for their children, who had been prevented from even attending schools because of their disabilities. In 1972, a consent order was entered in a case involving the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children, requiring the public school system to ensure a free public program of education and training to children with "exceptional" needs. In the same year, Mills v. Board of Education was decided in the District Court for the District of Columbia, and found that exclusion from publicly supported instruction was unconstitutional. The Mills case established a substantive entitlement to a free and suitable publicly supported education. These two cases were based upon the principle that if a public education agency undertook to educate all of the children in its area, it could not then exclude children with exceptional needs simply because they require greater resources to educate. Within these foundational cases was also established the idea of a "preference" for placement within a regular, public school placement.

Today, inclusion in a regular public school placement is still an issue of contention for many students with disabilities. The right to placement in the "least restrictive environment" is a contentious issue in many cases. Separate public schools exist where students with disabilities are placed separately from their non-disabled peers, which some argue is tantamount to segregation. On the other hand, because publicly supported education must be appropriate for the unique needs of the individual students, sometimes a separate specialized setting is required.
In the extreme, some students are still denied access to school because of the severity of their disabilities. In my own career, I have known a child whose parents' only wish was for him to be able to attend his neighborhood school, and he was never allowed to do so.

The right to equal educational opportunity and access has come a long way since 1954 for the groups of persons who have historically been denied that access. Unfortunately, on a daily basis I am reminded how far we still have to go as a society to reach the point where exclusion, discrimination, and the denial of meaningful educational benefit, be it on the basis of race, disability, or poverty, no longer exists in our schools. Only when we eliminate discrimination in schools and ensure truly equal access to a meaningful education will society as a whole move towards greater inclusion of all persons.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful article and a reminder to us all that we must continue to stand up for our rights, remain strong in our convictions, maintain a gentle, yet firm voice in our persuasive arguments and committed to teaching empathy to those who have yet to see the light. Thank you for writing this...