Every year on May 1, we celebrate Law Day. This year is particularly noteworthy as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in places of public accommodation and barred employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and gender. Addressing the nation as he signed the bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson ended his remarks with this call to action:
"This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country. So tonight I urge every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife — I urge every American — to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people — and to bring peace to our land. My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail."
Throughout the country and in Utah specifically, we have certainly overcome many hurdles in the past 50 years and have made important progress toward achieving equality. But we can still improve. One way we can do so is by providing every student with equal access to quality education.
A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation "compares how children are progressing on key milestones across racial and ethnic groups at the national and state level." The data for Utah demonstrate an across-the-board need to improve education, but many of the statistics display a particularly significant need among Utah’s minority students.
For example, in 2013, only 43 percent of white fourth graders scored at or above proficient levels in reading. For Asian/Pacific Islander fourth graders, the number was 40 percent. But only 14 percent of Hispanic/Latino students scored at or above proficient levels. For eighth grade math scores, 42 percent of white students scored at or above proficient levels, with only 31 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students and 13 percent of Hispanic/Latino students scoring at the same levels.
In 2009-10, 86 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander high school students graduated on time, as did 82 percent of white students. Only 61 percent of Hispanic/Latino students graduated on time. For Native American students, the number dropped to 57 percent.
And the trend continues into higher education. During 2010-2012, 51 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander young adults ages 25 to 29 and 42 percent of white young adults had completed an associate’s degree or higher. For Native Americans and Hispanic/Latinos, the numbers were 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Because education is such a critical component of our democratic system, we cannot ignore these numbers. The above data should instead challenge us to improve education for all of Utah’s students. As Franklin D. Roosevelt explained, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."
While continuing to build in the areas where we are already doing well, let us also respond to President Johnson’s challenge and "go to work" in our homes, communities, and schools to find creative, effective solutions in the areas where we need to improve. And as we advance the state’s educational system overall, let us also address the educational disparities illustrated by the above data, which correlate along racial lines.
Advancements in education will bring us that much closer to ensuring that the many ideals underlying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 become reality. Such progress will also provide every person with the educational foundation they will need to fully and productively participate in our democracy.
Melinda Bowen is an attorney at Snow, Christensen & Martineau and President of the Utah Minority Bar Association.
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