Still a long, bumpy road to equality in our schools

Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 12:00am

It's a long, bumpy road separating a school like Chicago's Langston Hughes Elementary School from an elite college like the University of Michigan.

As the Supreme Court justices consider the future of affirmative action programs, I hope at least one justice asks these lawyers how kids from a facility like Langston Hughes Elementary are supposed to get to an elite university.

"Our school is an old building," said Langston Hughes Principal Earl Ware. "We have things to go wrong, naturally. The heating went out. We finally got it fixed. There was a busted pipe, and water ran into the lunchroom. That was also corrected."

After the dilapidated school was the subject of a perspective piece by FOX News Chicago's Walter Jacobson, emergency repairs were made in a hurry. But you know how it is when a building is falling apart: As soon as one repair is made, another one is needed.

"Deplorable, unsafe and overcrowded" are words local school council members used to describe a school building named after a man who was an intellectual giant during the Harlem Renaissance era. But instead of a reflection of progress, the facility is a monument to the school system's neglect of children who didn't get on the bus when schools were integrated.

"Really, we need a new school. Work is constantly being done on our building to try to keep it suitable for students," Ware said.

Nearly 60 percent of the students are wards of the state, school activists said. Already burdened by adult problems at home, these children are being forced to learn in squalor.

"Twice before, we were supposedly on the budget to have a new school built," said Debra Stigler, school board chair. "Every time it came time for the funding, we would be bumped off the schedule.

"Schools should be a safe haven," Stigler continued. "The cafeteria shouldn't be closed for two weeks because of leaks. And I know school board members wouldn't subject their own children to these circumstances."

Chicago School Board President Michael Scott agrees that the 100-year-old building has to go, and claims the board is in the last phase of negotiations with two business owners for the final pieces of land needed to build.

"The Langston Hughes school has been an issue that has come before the board on several occasions," he said. "The conditions at the school are bad. But long before Walter's perspective aired, the board had made a commitment to build a new facility.

"We'll continue to do the necessary repairs to keep children safe," Scott said. "But we find ourselves with an abundance of schools that need to be replaced. While we have done $3 billion of new construction, there is at least another $2 billion of work that has to be done."

I don't think anyone, not even the young white women who challenged the University of Michigan's admissions program, could argue that our education system is equitable.

If it were up to me, I would gladly trade affirmative action programs for a fairer education funding formula. If more minority students than white students are having a difficult time passing the entrance exams for elite schools, it's because more minority students than white students are being educated in schools like Langston Hughes.

Today, many of these minority students are fighting in the military not because they made a career choice but because their substandard education left them with few options. That's a far greater shame.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on affirmative action, white and minority students who are able even to consider applying to a University of Michigan have bright futures ahead.

That isn't the case for a lot of poor kids who were educated at poor schools.

Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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