Early involvement, education are keys to keeping kids on track for productive lives
A close friend and law partner, Steve Morrison, devoted 10 years of his life and significant pro bono time to a landmark public education case, Abbeville v. State of South Carolina. Plaintiffs brought the original suit in 1993 on behalf of poor, rural school districts, seeking to hold the state to its constitutional obligation to provide every child the opportunity to acquire an adequate education.
In his closing argument before the trial court in 2004, Steve recounted an African parable about babies found floating down a river. “We have to get these babies out of the river,” a young fisherman exclaimed as he scrambled to pull them out. As an older fisherman began walking away, the young man protested. But the elder explained, “You help as many of the babies as you can. I’m going upriver to see who’s throwing babies into the river.”
In other words, we need to focus on the root causes of injustice, not just its symptoms. Steve worked hard on Abbeville and, sadly, died in October 2013. But the efforts of Steve, Carl Epps and their team paid off. After a reargument in 2008, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs in November, directing the state legislature to work with the school districts to ensure adequate educational opportunities for all the state’s children.
This is an obvious victory for equal opportunity. Education is an important issue for the bar because of our commitment to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in our profession and the justice system. To meet this critical goal, we must look upstream at how best to nurture our children’s capabilities. More than 60 years ago, lawyers played a major role in securing education on an equal basis in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet despite the efforts of pro bono and public interest lawyers, we are still far from securing the basic right of an adequate education for all children, particularly those from low-income families, children of color, children with disabilities and others from at-risk environments.
The problem is particularly acute in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which disadvantaged students, especially those who need special education or social assistance, are often neglected. Minority students are disproportionately represented in this population as they often attend failing schools, are subject to zero-tolerance discipline policies, and drop out in high numbers—if they are not suspended or expelled first. Many become involved with the criminal justice system and are sent to detention facilities.
These are civil rights and economic issues. Students who leave school prematurely frequently are disengaged as citizens, lose earning capacity, become more dependent on public programs, and eventually join the prison population. Nobel laureate James Heckman of the American Bar Foundation has documented the benefits of high-quality early childhood education as the most economical prevention of these ills.
A national leader on these issues is the American Bar Association Diversity Center, which promotes equal opportunity in our legal and justice systems. Within the center is the ABA Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, which helps develop interest in the law and promote career opportunities among diverse students from prekindergarten through college. The ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice fosters discussion and shapes policy on matters arising from racial and ethnic bias in the justice system. These groups are joining the ABA Criminal Justice Section on a new Joint Task Force on Reversing the School to Prison Pipeline, which is hosting town hall meetings and developing policy strategies on the topic.
To get at the roots of inequality and injustice, we must ensure that all children have the opportunity to graduate from high school well-qualified for productive and sustainable work, higher education and active participation in family and civic life. Only by placing ourselves upstream to meet our challenges can we realize society’s promise of equal opportunity for all.
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Upstream Intervention: Early involvement, education are keys to keeping kids on track for productive lives.”
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