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A Troubling Time Capsule: JFK on the State of Public Education

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With today marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, I thought I would share a post I wrote last year.

In his commencement speech at San Diego State College, the president of the United States covered unsurprising territory in describing the challenges facing the nation’s public schools – inequities for minority students, a high dropout rate, and the need for better teacher training.

What might be surprising is that the president was John F. Kennedy, and he was addressing the class of 1963.

“Our current education programs, much as they represent a burden upon the taxpayers of this country, do not meet the responsibility,” Kennedy said on June 6, 1963 at what is now San Diego State University. “The fact of the matter is that this is a problem which faces us all, no matter where we live, no matter what our political views must be.”

Five days after that graduation speech—and 49 years ago today—Kennedy delivered his historic speech on civil rights from the Oval Office. His commencement address “was a recognition of what needed to be done,” said Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “The last time the three branches of government worked together to do something about segregation started with that period.”

The familiarity of Kennedy’s remarks from a vantage point of nearly half a century “speaks both to the aspirations we all have for education and how tough these issues are,” said Andrew Rotherham, who co-founded Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit  in Washington, D.C. focusing on improving opportunities for low-income students. “He’s talking about exactly the same problems we’re talking about now.”

Indeed, Kennedy made reference in his remarks to the segregated schools of the South and the “de facto” segregation in the North. Many of the underlying problems of segregation haven’t been solved, even if it’s no longer legal, Rotherham said.

“Laws that sentenced blacks to third-class educations – those were the easy targets,” said Rotherham, who was a special assistant for domestic policy during the Clinton administration. “What’s driving segregation now is housing patterns, and that’s much more difficult to solve. It’s also not necessarily a problem you can solve with education.”

There are public policy initiatives that can “nudge things along,” Rotherham said, “but no one runs for school board on a platform for changing the school boundaries. There’s a reason for that.”

Researchers like Orfield note that the nation’s public schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s. According to Orfield, part of that backslide is due to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court over the past two decades. That includes a landmark 2007 decision invalidating Seattle Public Schools’ voluntary desegregation plan which used race as a factor in school zoning decisions.

Many of the nation’s schools are segregated by ethnicity and poverty, and for some minority students – particularly the soaring Latino population — the segregation is also by language, Orfield said. While the nation’s racial barriers are lower in many ways, those advances have not been enough to cancel out the effect of inadequate political leadership and a “hostile” Supreme Court, he said.

“When Kennedy made that speech, no one knew how to do what he was going for,” Orfield said. “Now, we know how to do this. We know what works and what doesn’t work. But we’re not doing anything about it. We are allowing our Latino population to grow up in some of the most segregated schools we’ve ever had.”

To Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on closing the achievement and opportunity gaps for poor and minority children, Kennedy’s speech was distressingly familiar. With the exception of Kennedy’s references to California as a leader in public education and a fiscal model for the nation, “the same speech could be given today with equal urgency,” Haycock said.

The Golden State is certainly struggling in the wake of the recession, and both K-12 and higher education are reeling from substantial cuts to funding, programming and services. In a blog post, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation called Kennedy’s speech “a reminder of a period in California’s not too distant past, when the Golden State led the nation in expanding the commitment to preparing future generations of educated citizens.”

While funding issues are certainly part of the problem in many states, “a lot of the inequities are actually choices that educators make,” Haycock said. “I don’t think educators always think of it as a conscious choice, but it is.”

The research suggests that “when a classroom is overwhelmingly black and poor, we expect less of kids,” Haycock said. As an example, she pointed to enrollment data for higher-level math classes. In most states, not even the highest-achieving black and Hispanic students get access to algebra in the eighth grade, although it’s more commonplace for their white peers, Haycock said.

“Kennedy was clear that while we might not all have equal abilities, we have to provide truly equal opportunities to all children — that’s where we continue to lag, and where we stand out among developed countries,” Haycock said. “We continue to spend less on poor students, we give them the weakest teachers, and we assign them to the lowest level courses.”

That’s not to say the United States hasn’t made significant strides in the decades since Kennedy’s speech. But the lack of greater progress – including in the critical area of teacher preparation – is disheartening, Haycock said.

“He called the problems right, and he called the way forward right,” Haycock said. “That the opportunities remain so unequal in this country is terribly troubling.”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.