Forty-seven Years of the Civil Rights Act

Forty-seven years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This historic legislation outlawed discrimination against African-Americans and women, and reaffirmed the principle of equal access to education, public facilities, and opportunity.  The progress we have made since then sustains my lasting optimism about the unique promise of the United States.

Despite the great accomplishments in the decades since the Civil Rights Act, a significant gap in academic achievement exists between students from low-income communities and their more affluent peers.  Average scores for African-American and Hispanic eighth-graders are consistently lower than those of their White counterparts.  In Pennsylvania, only 17% of Black and 13% of Hispanic students scored at a “proficient” or “advanced” level on a key national test, while 46% of White students met those benchmarks.  Nationally, this persistent gap has shrunk little since 1980.  Although Pennsylvania has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, only 53% of Black students and 50% of Hispanic students graduate, compared with 83% of White students, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. 

Aside from our moral obligation to provide an excellent education to every child, a well-educated workforce is the foundation for a strong and competitive American economy.  In Pennsylvania alone, the 34,300 students who did not graduate from high school in 2010 represent lost lifetime earnings in the Commonwealth of over $8.9 billion.  I maintain a deep commitment to addressing this national issue and I will keep the stark reality of the achievement gap in mind as Congress works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.   I will also recall the inspiring values of equal access to opportunity that our government renewed forty-seven years ago.