Letter From The Chancellor Of The Philadelphia Bar Association

2004-07-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Here's something that both President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry agree on: The recent 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education challenges us once again to aspire to the high ideals enunciated in that decision. Indeed, both candidates agree that we have much work to do in this regard.

The President says that anti-discrimination laws must be "vigorously enforced" because "the habits of racism in America have not all been broken."Senator Kerry says that "Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality," but he adds that "The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all."

The President and Senator Kerry made these observations during May's Brown commemorative events held in Topeka, Kansas. Here in Philadelphia the Bar Association joined with the School District of Philadelphia to observe the Brown anniversary during a special half day program at the School District headquarters. This program will always be one of the treasured memories of my year as Chancellor.

Our Brown anniversary observance forced us to look back as well as forward and (much as the events attended by President Bush and Senator Kerry) it also confronted us with the reality of unfinished business.Video testimonials from seven prominent Philadelphia lawyers focused on "Brown remembered" and brought us back to the time of the decision. These actualities from those who lived through Brown were not limited to Philadelphia but also took us to the South where segregation was an all-pervasive way of life. But our real-life witnesses to Brown also looked ahead and told us what Brown failed to accomplish.

To focus us on the key issues in the Brown case, we were treated to student presentations of selected Brown arguments re-enacted by mock trial champions from Philadelphia's Northeast and Masterman high schools. This was followed by one of the most stirring parts of the program: a reading of the Brown decision by Mayor John F. Street, President Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson, Chief Judge James T. Giles, Third Circuit Judges Theodore A. McKee and Marjorie O. Rendell, and Judges Bruce W. Kauffman and Clifford Scott Green of the U. S. District Court. It was hard not to be moved by the judicial presentation which climaxed with Mayor Street's dramatic entrance into the school district auditorium while he read his portion of the decision.

One of my favorite parts of the program was the Town Hall meeting moderated by Temple University Beasley School of Law Professor Phoebe A. Haddon. Professor Haddon engaged a large group of students, educators and lawyers in the discussion and it was heartening to see so many of our Philadelphia school students involved in the discussion. So many of the high school and middle school students relayed stories and observations that gave the program and the discussion vital meaning and relevance. Once again I found myself energized and challenged by the insights and views expressed by a new generation. I thought of the advantages that must come from working in an educational setting with young people. You cannot seek solace in the comfort of old, worn out views and attitudes. You are forced to confront the future and open your mind to new ideas. We should all be placed in such a setting as frequently as possible.

An informal lunch gave us the chance to hear from School District CEO Paul Vallas who brought the whole program together and related the issues to the Philadelphia School District in 2004 and beyond.Philadelphia public schools are still grossly underfunded. The school district itself admits that per-pupil spending in Philadelphia "is still significantly lower than the average per-pupil expenditure of the majority of surrounding school districts." In fact, while Philadelphia spends about $7,600 per pupil on education, nearby Abington spends nearly $9,000 per pupil and Cherry Hill spends nearly $10,000. And remember - the needs are much greater in Philadelphia. On top of all this, for the most part the schools in our region continue to experience defacto segregation based largely on geographic and/or socio-economic factors.

In short, Brown reminds us that we are simply not providing equal educational opportunity. Not by a long shot."While our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are still not equal in opportunity and excellence," President Bush said on May 17. And on the same day Senator Kerry declared: "We need to renew our commitment to one America. We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that because Brown represents the law, we have achieved our goal, that the work of Brown is done."

As lawyers, we all have a responsibility to recommit ourselves to equal educational opportunity for all. That means engagement in the issues raised by Brown and continuing involvement with the communities we serve. The Philadelphia Bar Association takes this responsibility seriously.


Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua