Roundtable: School Segregation, Gulf Coast Immigration

Guests: Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of The Cousin Jeff Chronicles on BET, Dawn Turner Trice, reporter and columnist with the Chicago Tribune and George Curry, editor-in-chief of The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. Wednesday's topics: school segregation; immigrants taking on work left in the Gulf Coast; and Congress considers extending the Voting Rights Act.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, Congress considers extending parts of the Voting Rights Act, and a new dress code for NBA players; also a new book suggests that segregation is alive and well in the nation's schools.

Joining us from our bureau in Chicago, Dawn Turner Trice, reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Joining me here in our Washington, DC, studio is Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the Jeff Johnson chronicles on BET, and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service in Maryland.

All right, folks, this is something that we've been talking about for a long time on this program and that's the extension of provisions in the Voting Rights Act. We should note that this week the House Judiciary Committee will, in fact, hold hearings to looking into the key provisions of this law. George Curry, we should note that while the Voting Rights Act in and of itself is not in danger of going away, key provisions, as I just suggested, are. And it's important, these hearings are, to make sure that on the Hill there is an understanding that people see importance in keeping these. That is part of really why these hearings are being held, correct?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Yeah, that's part of it and the key provision that states, counties or government subdivision have a history of discrimination, mostly in the South, but can't just make--change the rules in voting without checking out the impact it's going to have on people of color. And the other one is, of course, to mandate bilingual elections assistance. And so this is important.

Now I think that people recognize that whatever happens is going to be challenged in court. I mean, we just have that coming from the right, you know it's going to happen. So I think people are trying to make sure everything is solidified but at the same time not fall prey to tricks. For example, a trick would be to propose that--let this be permanent, because that would be more open to a legal attack and, of course, wouldn't be as defensible. So I think that those are the kind of things we're going to be looking for.

GORDON: Jeff, isn't part of the issue here, though, particularly among African-Americans and other minorities in this country who heretofore understood the importance of this, the lack of understanding of not just the Voting Rights Act in and of itself but what these provisions will mean and do. I mean, often there was this cry not too long ago assuming that the act was going away and therefore blacks would not be able to vote. I can't tell you, and I know you've heard it, how many times I heard that out in the street. It really is important for us to start knowing and understanding what is going on on the Hill.

Mr. JEFFREY JOHNSON (Host, "The Cousin Jeff Chronicles"): Sure. And I think that even beyond--where we really have strength, I think, for those of us that are concerned with making sure these provisions go through, is that the elections of 2000 and 2004 show that the Voting Rights Act is really not about just African-Americans anymore. And the huge disenfranchisement that we saw says to poor communities and broader communities that if these provisions aren't approved, then not only will African-Americans in many cases have issues, but people in urban communities and rural communities all over the country. So we need to be involved in a broad education piece. But we need to understand that it's not just about African-Americans in 2005.

GORDON: Dawn, we often see during these committees, particularly those who watch C-SPAN, an opportunity for the men and women on the Hill to kind of stick their chest out and show that they are leading the way, if you will. Do you anticipate us seeing that kind of a--I'm trying to be kind in what word I might...

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Chicago Tribune): The grandstanding.

GORDON: No, I didn't want to call it grandstanding, but OK, I'll say--if I get calls, I'll say you said it.

Ms. TRICE: OK. Sure.

GORDON: That kind of grandstanding and perhaps can that be good to a degree for this?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I think that as long--if it's all based on the truth and facts, I think it's fine. I mean, this was a huge deal and it continues--the act continues to be just something that's very, very important to all Americans. I think that part of the discussions should include whether there should be maybe not solely contractions within the provisions, but expansions. They should look at Ohio and Florida, those irregularities there, and really think about or talk about, well, what can we do, how can we be proactive in anticipating some things that may come along, if that's possible, so that we don't have the same types of irregularities that we had in those past elections.

Mr. CURRY: Of course there's some people saying that's a bad strategy, Dawn. Some saying, look, let's stick to what we need to do and let's not get into all these other kind of things because people will find ways to defeat it.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah, but I think it's something that we need to--that has to be talked about. I do understand the legal ramifications of that. But...

Mr. JOHNSON: But, Dawn, I...

Ms. TRICE: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...think that that's happening in different parts of the country. I mean, even now Ohio is considering election reform, ballot initiative, that the people got put on the ballot.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: And so you're looking at many of these election reform issues that the states are putting in place, and I agree with George, I think, on this one. We need to make sure that we're focused on getting these pieces pushed through without convoluting what, in many cases, is going to be a difficult battle.

GORDON: George, we should also note that the Supreme Court and the Justice Department, particularly under John Ashcroft's reign, had to look at ways--the Supreme Court obviously looking at the case that was brought, Georgia vs. Ashcroft in 2003--in ways in changing aspects of this law, so there are attacks on many fronts as many civil rights activists have suggested.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah. And a key provision of this is the pre-Clarence provision. That is that before a municipality can go make these changes, they've got to see how they're going to impact it, and there was an adverse decision in Georgia v. Ashcroft, and that's one of the things that can be corrected through this legislation.

GORDON: All right. Well, we will continue to watch. One would want to believe that this won't go the way of the Edsel and that these provisions will, in fact, be there, but we'll keep a watch of that and, obviously, talk about it on this program.

Mr. CURRY: What's an Edsel, Ed?

GORDON: I don't know. I read about it somewhere, George Curry. I think it was your first car, but...

Ms. TRICE: Ooh.

GORDON: ...let's move to an interesting book that's out by a gentleman who has raised the ire of many through the years, and this is author Jonathan Kozol. His book is called "The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America." And he talks about something that, again, we've talked about on many, many occasions on this program, and that is the idea that separate but equal, quite frankly, was never the rule of this land, because the equal was forgotten, and his suggestion is we're right back to separate and unequal in this country as relates to education, Dawn.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. This is a new book. It's not a new issue. Today, Brown is far more rhetoric than reality in many places. For many blacks and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics, our country's public education system remains separate and unequal. One-fourth of all black students in the Northeast and the Midwest attend schools in which 99 to 100 percent of their classmates are non-white. And the most segregated schools, interestingly enough, are found in--not in the bastions of the Deep South, but in Illinois, New York, Michigan and California, four very blue states. In Illinois, I'd just like to add that the gap in spending between the minority dominated and the whitest districts amount to a staggering $47,000 per typical elementary school classroom, and that ranged from wealthy white suburban schools spending, in some cases, nearly $10,000 more than what's spent on black kids in Chicago public schools. The resource gap is even greater when you think about how poor kids also don't necessarily have the type of family supports, in some cases, that some of their suburban counterparts may have.

So this is--I mean, this is definitely about per pupil spending, but can you buy a better education? Certainly, there are other factors outside of money, such as, as I said, family support and placing a real value on education and all of that, living in a peaceful neighborhood, but computers cost, books cost. Money does make a difference in the wealthier communities, and if it didn't, they wouldn't be spending so much on their kids.

Mr. CURRY: The answer is yes, Dawn, you can buy better education. Unfortunately, we're not supplying it in the public schools. But the issue here is really about resources, just as Brown was, not really about desegregation, whether you're sitting next to a person of opposite color. The question has always been how can I get the best resources? And the argument, of course, advanced by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was that if whites and blacks are in the same classroom, you're more likely to get a better education. But the problem is this, and it came out of a lot of the celebrations last year of 50th anniversary of Brown, is you have had, one, court decisions that have been adverse and you have a lack of national commitment to school desegregation. We're not getting the national leadership that we got before, and that's why we're in this fix now.

GORDON: And, Jeff, isn't part of the issues, quite frankly, the rhetoric we give to young people and education in this country for years, and I'm talking about probably since I was in high school. I've heard how we need to put on the front burner the idea of fixing the infrastructure of schools and updating the infrastructure of schools and equaling out the playing fields of urban and suburban? And 30 years later, it's the same argument.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well--and we've seen various ploys to make us feel as if--I think one day, somebody said that the lottery was created for the public schools in many states, but we don't see that translating. We see in most states where there's clearly more money spent to incarcerate young people than to educate them, which doesn't say to me that we're interested in educating young people within a state. When we look at school buildings, we see old books and old computers and old buildings, but new detention facilities. So I do think that there is a piece of rhetoric.

However, even in this political game that we see when we see the right talking about vouchers and school choice and we, in many cases, see the left or Democrats talking about supporting public education, until we're very serious about public school reform, we're going to continue to be going down this road. There's no way you can tell me that throwing a voucher at the problem fixes public schools. But on the flip side, supporting a public school system that is bankrupt in many cases, with no real sight, in my mind, outside of some very unique charter schools--no real sight of how we're going to see the light at the end of this tunnel, so until, Ed, I think we start talking about real school reform, public school reform, this book that Kozol writes I think, as I already mentioned, is going to continue to be that pink elephant in the middle of the room that we talk about every 10 years but don't really do anything about.

GORDON: Dawn, how realistic is it to see real public school reform, which would be a daunting task, to say the least, in this country?

Ms. TRICE: Well...

GORDON: It seems to me, quite frankly, that politicians and leadership may not know let alone how to do it, but where to even start.

Ms. TRICE: Well, leadership right now trumpets the No Child Left Behind Act, and it's--you know, everybody wants accountability, from teachers, from students. We need to be able to track the progress. I mean, we understand that that's very, very important, but at the same time, it comes down--No Child Left Behind becomes an unfunded mandate because a lot of schools do not have the money that's needed to do the type of work that's required from the act. So how difficult--I think that we still have to--you know, I keep saying `we,' because as a parent, it's very much my responsibility to play a role in this revamping, the legislators, all of these people--I mean, we've got to put our heads together--and it sounds like, you know, Pollyannish, but we have to...

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. TRICE: ...do that to get to a better paradigm.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, we keep talking...

Ms. TRICE: Right now, we're losing too many kids.

Mr. JOHNSON: We keep talking about No Child...

Mr. CURRY: Let me make this one point, Ed. There are...

GORDON: Hang on. Hang on one second, George.

Mr. JOHNSON: We keep talking about No Child Left Behind being fully funded. Even if it was fully funded, it's unrealistic, because the piece speaks to, within a certain time period, every school in the country being at a hundred percent pass rate. That will not happen. In addition to that, there's too many damaging other pieces. For instance, which--the amendments to it which give the Pentagon access to the names and addresses and phone numbers, jobs of parents of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds for the purpose of recruitment, so whether this bill is funded fully or not, it is not what the schools need to be successful.

GORDON: George.

Mr. CURRY: Let me say this. I mean, I spoke at the national school boards--at the urban school board division earlier in San Diego. There is--contrary to what you may believe, there is a lot of reform going on. We know some things that work, but they have not been done--there is not enough of it. For example, in Chattanooga, they reward teachers who agree that--they match their best teachers with the poorest school, and when they get results, they get bonuses. They get bonuses for living in houses that are in the inner city. In Colorado, some districts require that whether you want to or not, all high school graduates must apply to college. And, of course, that opens the door for some kids who might not have thought about it. There are a lot of reforms going on. It's not broad enough. It's not supported enough, but I think a lot of educators do know what works. We're just not getting the support for it.

GORDON: And often, it's interesting that that kind of reform isn't always even on a statewide basis, but on a--within the district itself within that state, and that's why I said...

Mr. CURRY: Right.

GORDON: ...leadership may not know where to start, because whether we like to admit it or not, human frailties fall into, `This is my turf and my territory,' and, Jeff, you'll see fights between principals in a district, principals of the state and, of course, the federal level here with No Child Left Behind, which we should note Jonathan Kozol suggests a repeal of that within his book.

Ms. TRICE: Right.

Mr. CURRY: Of course, the key, too, is the support from the business community.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

Mr. CURRY: The reason that those programs are working in Chattanooga, for example, is they have--the business community has set up a separate foundation. They realize this is where they're going to get their workers from in the future, and they have an investment in it. And so when you get the community support, particularly the business support and reform-minded educators, you can make a difference.

Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

GORDON: But now if that's the case, Dawn, how realistic is it to assume that we're going to move toward reform when we see companies and corporations like General Motors in dire straits, who may have been able to kick money into urban areas before, who clearly are going to pull back on that kind of thing now?

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. I mean, everybody right now is kind of tightening their financial belts. And--but I think that a key component to this is--and I do understand--I mean, No Child Left Behind has some very, very serious problems, but a key component is also the parental involvement, and if we can kind of get to parents to say--and to get to really boost the value--placing a real value on education, and it's starting in the home, that's got to be a huge focus of this. Yes, private--the sector has a huge role to play, politicians and other community members, but we have to also focus on the family.

GORDON: Jeff, isn't part of the issue just demand, though? I mean, you know, people who have lived so long with inadequate schools, there has to be a demand, a true accountability hold, if you will, to leadership that you'd better get our schools straight or you will not be in office.

Mr. JOHNSON: But I think that's what we were just talking about. It's parents historically who have played that role. And so if parents aren't demanding, then that's not going to happen. Many of us even right now remember our parents being at the school, not if--not--even if--beyond us doing something wrong, if something was wrong, we remember our parents going to PTA meetings. So that demand does have to come from the parents, but I think there also has to be parent advocates out there...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...that are teaching and training parents how to be effectively engaged, and for those parents that are working third shift who can't go to PTA meetings, somebody's got to fill the gap for them as well.

GORDON: Yeah. All right.

Mr. CURRY: I think we need all the segments. I mean, parents--I agree, that's an important segment. We need the business community. We need those who don't have parents to have--to be invested in this whole process. We need all of it.

GORDON: In fact, we do. We were going to try to talk about the dress code, maybe from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the dress code being imposed on NBA players, a millionaire dress code, as I like to call it. We'll get to that tomorrow. Dawn Turner Trice, who joined us from Chicago, Jeff Johnson's here with me in Washington, and George Curry, who joins us from Maryland today, I thank you all for joining us.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

GORDON: And you can hear the roundtable again at any time. Simply visit our Web site at npr.org and click on to NPR podcasts to learn how to have the roundtable delivered to your computer or MP3 player every day.

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