IN 1983, WHEN the National Commission on Excellence in Education handed President Ronald Reagan its much heralded report entitled, "A Nation at Risk," there was the usual hand-wringing regarding the "rising tide of mediocrity" in our nation's public schools. Curiously, the report had little of substance to say about the state of racial minorities and the poor, those most in need of a good education.
The report was sparked by the falling Scholastic Assessment Test scores of white students. Black and Hispanic students constituted fewer than 10 percent of secondary students who took the SAT test at that time. Separate and unequal education and poverty made taking or even understanding the importance of the SAT an insurmountable problem for many of them.
After an initial flurry of activity in response to the publication of "A Nation at Risk," the nation's public schools returned to a state of indifference. There were some cosmetic changes made by some school systems, as suggested in the report, including: a longer school day, a longer school year, more rigorous curricula, etc. Little was done to improve public education for the poor and racial minorities. Consequently, urban school systems still generally receive less funds than their suburban counterparts. It remains a painful reality that where a child lives and his parents' income tend to determine the quality of education the child receives.
Many major reports on public education have been released in the wake of "A Nation at Risk," but few have addressed the deplorable education received by the nation's poor children.
As we mark the 12th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," we have, tragically, reached a point of triage in our nation's inner-city schools. There are new "remedies" for the problems of public schools being proposed, including: privatization, school vouchers, "reconstitution" of schools, state take-overs, etc. Twenty states now have laws on the books that would permit state government to take control of failing schools. In New Jersey, the state assumed control of the Jersey City and Paterson school districts in 1989 and 1991, respectively. It is regretable, according to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, that educational goals still have not been achieved in those two cities.
What is urgently needed to reverse the "rising tide of mediocrity" are three key elements:
* Equitable and fair funding for all school districts. States have an obligation to pursue this course in support of equity for all students.
* A doubling of federal funding for schools to provide the necessary funds to insure equity.
* Use of a challenging course of study for all public schools, which parents, teachers and all of society must insist on.
Our nation can no longer permit its most precious resource, its youth, to lack an adequate education because of race and economic background. It is time to begin to muster the will and provide necessary monetary and human capital for genuine equity and excellence in all schools.
Samuel L. Banks is director of the Baltimore City schools' Department of Compensatory Education and Funded Programs. He writes from Prince George's County.