The landmark court case of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka [347 U.S. 483 (1954)], famously ruled that the “separate but equal” clause (originally established in Plessy v. Ferguson [163 US 537 (1896)]) was void. In the unanimous 9-0 decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the opinion of the court, including the notable phrase, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” making school segregation unconstitutional under the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.
Whereas most are aware that the Supreme Court took the case on appeal from the United States District Court for the State of Kansas, some are surprised to hear that the Brown case was actually a compilation of segregation cases throughout the south, including Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.). One case in particular, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County [103 F. Supp. 337 (1952)], was unique in that it was the only case born through grassroot student activism. This case was also of particular note, as it dealt with the issue of school facilities, curriculum, and busing, and argued that students from a segregated black school were not getting the same opportunities as those from the white school in the neighborhood.
In the Brown ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the District Court’s ruling in Davis, and found, “the Negro school inferior in physical plant, curricula, and transportation, and ordered the defendants forthwith to provide substantially equal curricula and transportation and to ‘proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove’ the inequality in physical plant.” Footnote 10 in the Brown ruling further explained that these systemic inequalities “results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated.”
Today, I feel keenly aware of these specific words in Warren’s opinion of the court: “substantially equal transportation.” More than 60 years after the Brown decision, I ask: what constitutes “substantially equal transportation” in 2017? While our schools today may not be legally segregated (although modern scholars and trends may disagree), our schools are undoubtedly segregated by socio-economic status. In the spirit of Warren’s opinion, I argue that many of the amazing students that attend the Title I school that I teach at in Newark, objectively receive transportation that is substantially unequal to that of their peers in Millburn or Livingston.
As a chaperone on Student Council trips, I have been afforded the incredible opportunity to attend many college visits over the years. Of the dozens of field trips that I have helped lead, I can count on one hand how often our bus has been punctual. Time after time after time, I find myself calling a random bus company, asking why our bus is late, and what time the bus will arrive at our school. After getting on the bus (often hours after the scheduled pick-up time), I then have to call the college we are scheduled to visit, and apologize profusely that our group is going to be two or three hours late for our appointment, which typically means less time on campus for our students (many of whom are aspiring first-generation college graduates). Even once the buses do arrive, they are often outdated, not clean, and smaller than modern buses, with unknown safety records. On one trip in 2013, the bus company “mistakenly” sent only two of the three buses back to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, forcing a group of teachers to take the subway back to Newark in order to make it possible for all our students to cram onto the other two buses.
Our Robotics Students have also had their fair share of issues with transportation problems. One of the more infamous stories include an overnight robotics trip in 2015. During the second day of the field trip, the team was waiting for the bus at the hotel, when they found out that the engine could not start. Since the competition had strict rules and regulations, the teachers on the trip had to pay for an “Uber” out of pocket for some of the members, while the rest of the team had to wait for an airport van to cram 8 people in it. After getting the bus working again, the driver claimed he was not aware that the trip was a multi-day event, and returned to Newark during the competition without notifying any of the teachers. This meant that our entire robotics team was stranded in another city hours away from Newark with no viable transportation options. After several demanding phone calls and hours after all of the other teams went home, another bus finally showed up. The next day, on the way back to Newark, the bus could not go faster than 15 miles per hour, and ended up breaking down in the middle of the highway. The bus started smoking, and students were forced to evacuate and stand on the shoulder of a busy highway; the chaperones on the trip immediately called the police and filed a report. A few hours later, a “rescue” bus showed up, and got the students home hours after their scheduled arrival.
As it has been said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This story played out yet again on our college visit to TCNJ two days ago. Our contract (see below) was approved for the bus to pick us up at 7:45am, but after twenty-three (23!!) phone calls and being disrespected and lied to over and over again, the bus finally showed up in front of our high school at 9:13am. On top of everything else, the driver had no directions to our destination. What was at one point a simple mistake that was disconcerting and frustrating, became yet another example of the perpetuation of inequality facing our most vulnerable students.
These are just three stories regarding busing issues of literally hundreds that I could have shared that directly impact the students of the Newark Public Schools every single week. As someone who personally rode the bus to middle school daily, I can only remember one ‘freak incident’ that we had. For three full years, I took the public-school bus back and forth from school, almost always without a hitch. Truth be told, it would be forgivable if a school vehicle occasionally got a flat tire or caught in traffic. What my students contend with is not a couple of ‘freak incidents,’ but rather a broken system that clearly does not value the students of the Newark Public Schools and does not allow them access to the quality of transportation that students in more affluent areas take for granted. From my figurative seat on the bus, I am made acutely aware of the inferiority in transportation every time we have a field trip. I have tried everything at my disposal, including calling bus companies, sending e-mails, filing grievances, and even attending school board meetings; nothing seems to ever change. Perhaps it is time we finally “proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove all inequality in transportation,” as Earl Warren put forward more than sixty years ago. In 2017, there remains a plethora of adaptive challenges and deep-seated systemic racism and inequalities that persist in our public-school system that are going to require significant resources and innovative leadership to overcome. But seriously, can we at least get the transportation right?