The civil rights issue of our time

Sixty years ago Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools violated our basic equal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But while the Brown v. Board of Education case is a historic event to be celebrated, its anniversary is not.

Three generations later, we’re still fighting to provide equal access to a high-quality education for every student in America.

Consider these staggering data points:

It’s clear we are failing to provide a first-class education equally to all students. Children’s zip codes, their parents’ socioeconomic status and their skin color still play a role in the quality of public schools available to them.

As a mayor, I focus on public education because I know that when schools fail, our kids and our cities pay the price – whether through local economies and workforces that cannot compete, increased crime rates, or depressed quality of life. You simply cannot have a great city without great schools.

In Sacramento, we’ve recruited nonprofit agencies, including City Year, Teach for America and College Track, to have their teachers in our lowest-income neighborhoods.

But it’s not enough to focus on schools in one city alone. That’s why, as newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I’m making public education reform a major focus. I will be working with mayors in every corner of this country to help them do their part to bring equality and excellence to public schools.

What does that mean? First and foremost, it means realizing the promise of Common Core standards. Measuring all kids across the country with the same yardstick will go a long way toward identifying inequalities in our schools.

My wife – education-reform advocate Michelle Rhee – always says the most powerful thing we can do is to make sure an excellent teacher is at the front of every classroom. Unfortunately, students of color are more likely to be taught by an underqualified, brand-new or lower-paid teacher. That exacerbates inequity. Mayors can play a role in fixing that.

We also need to help students trapped in failing schools. More than 40 percent of African-American students in our country attend schools that are underresourced and performing poorly, but they have no options. Mayors can help open and expand public charter schools.

Some mayors are already working hard to bring equality to public schools. In San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro set a goal of raising the percentage of Latino students seeking two- or four-year degrees to 50 percent by the year 2020. In Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock brought the SEEK program (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) to his city to connect mentors to students underrepresented in science and engineering fields.

But this 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision is a reminder of how far we have to go in fulfilling the promise of that landmark decision. Three generations later, it’s clear that equality in education remains the civil rights issue of our day.