In 1956, after a long battle grounded in transportational equity, The Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional–assigning much-deserved triumph to the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott heralded by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This civil rights victory had smaller roots than are often noticed or heralded: it was inspired by a lesser-known bus boycott here in our own Baton Rouge. In June 1953, African American residents of Baton Rouge initiated what historians believe to be the first bus boycott of the South, which eventually inspired those in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite making up 80 percent of public bus ridership, African Americans were denied equal access to seats and barred from operating private buses–testaments to a Jim Crow-driven legal system.
The state of Baton Rouge’s bus transportation system in 1953 is eerily similar to the history of our education system–a history actively pervading various institutions across our city today. Like many of the modern era’s public institutions, public education, which largely serves African American students, is derived from a legacy of injustice and discrimination. While Civil Rights legislation and court rulings have outlawed de jure segregation in public education for over 65 years, we continually witness in our Capital City a segregated, underperforming education system for a large number of African American students.
More than a decade ago, when I began working in education in Baton Rouge, our community’s leaders stood divided on how to solve the city’s education crisis. Courageous, reform-minded state and civic leaders pressed for change through repeated attempts to overhaul the school board–but once sworn in, these leaders failed to match their vision with policies and practices that changed the daily experiences of educators and students. On the other side, school system leaders largely defended the status quo–in part through a strong belief in their approach, but likely also as a natural reaction to repeated criticism. Regardless of each group’s ideology, the cold, hard data illustrated mediocrity within the system, as well as the dwindling hope for meaningful change as attempt after failed attempt was executed in the name of reform. When coupled with the defense of the status quo, these disheartening attempts at reform left better educational outcomes nothing but an ever-fading hope for the Capital City’s most at-risk children.
Faced with a system unwilling or incapable of serving their needs, the leaders of the Baton Rouge bus boycott undertook a novel approach by taking matters into their own hands. The path to justice is sadly often neither straight nor simple, but characterized by dizzying curves and dismal blockades. Leaders for transformative change continue to find routes around these obstacles, ultimately delivering on the promise that every rider and every child be able to fairly access the seat of their choice.
Today, Baton Rouge leaders are less polarized in their vision for transforming educational access and quality. Together with the community, school district, and state education leaders, we have boldly embarked on a path that only a handful of cities across the country have tried. This approach is more methodical than previous attempts at educational reform. It is focused on replicating successful schools run by independent, non-profit boards. More than ever before, families have a broader array of tuition-free, quality school options regardless of their level of affluence or home address. The work is by no means finished–nor has the path to educational equity suddenly become straight or unobstructed–but we are witnessing progress at a remarkable rate. And, the nation is beginning to take notice. My hope is that we inspire the next city to follow our footsteps as we become the first in America where every publicly-governed school truly offers an excellent education. Then, our community–and beyond–can finally deliver on the promise of a great school for every child.
Chris Meyer, CEO