This year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case which a team of some of the nation’s best attorneys, led by Thurgood Marshall, won in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. (LDF), later became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Brown ended officially enforced public school segregation and overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination. More bluntly, it ultimately halted the American system of apartheid. Its implementation was resisted mightily from the beginning, and that resistance continues to this day.
Some perspective is in order. The “all deliberate speed” formula delivered by the Supreme Court in 1955 actually meant that school desegregation did not begin in earnest for another 16 years. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, for example, public schools were closed rather than integrated until the Supreme Court directed otherwise in 1964. African-American children in Prince Edward County were deprived of any opportunity for public school education while their white peers had their education subsidized at private schools.
Through the efforts of LDF, the Justice Department and the NAACP, by the late 1970s many school children experienced desegregated education. That era ended in the 1980s when a period of retrenchment began. At the dawn of the 21st century, schools are being re-segregated at a rapid pace, with children of color more likely to attend a school that is mostly minority than they were a decade ago. According to a recent study by Scripps Howard News Service, 35 percent, or 6.6 million, of the nation’s 18.9 million African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American children in 2001were enrolled in public schools that were 90 percent minority or more.
Racially segregated schools are more likely than racially integrated schools to be centers of highly concentrated poverty. They are less likely to have qualified teachers, adequate books and materials, and a challenging academic curriculum and more likely to have oversized classes and deteriorating facilities. These conditions lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and an environment that is generally hostile to learning.
Faced with these difficulties, politicians and school bureaucrats too often focus on inadequate, “quick fix” solutions: excessively harsh disciplinary practices (including “zero tolerance” policies) that give children a one-way ticket to prison; an obsessive focus on high-stakes tests that punish children who have not had an adequate opportunity to learn what they are being tested on; warehousing children in special education with inappropriate plans of instruction; and permanently tracking children into remedial classes.
The federal No Child Left Behind law offers a questionable mix of remedies. All of us can agree with the law’s enshrinement of the premise that all children can learn and the requirement that schools set high expectations for all students. However, its unqualified reliance on a rigid regime of high-stakes testing narrows curriculum, labels and punishes struggling schools impacted by poverty and encourages the misuse and abuse of standardized tests. Moreover, the law has not been adequately funded, and this imposes unrealistic demands on overburdened school districts and their students.
Today, the quality of public education available to most minorities is disturbingly close to the levels found in 1954, an indictment of the country’s commitment to providing the kind of education necessary for all its citizens to succeed. This country must invest in its economic future by investing in the education of our children. For most children, especially children of color, this means an investment in public education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 89 percent of all students in grades K-12 attended public schools in 2002; 35 percent of that number were Black or Hispanic. Overall, 94 percent of Black students and 95 percent of Hispanic students attended public schools.
In today’s global economy, the United States can ill afford to leave behind so many children of color, or to place the burden on them and their families to shop for a quality education as though it were a consumer product rather than a civic benefit. As citizens, we must fight education policies that encourage inequities and discourage America’s children. We must get involved in our local public schools to make them places where all children can succeed. And we must tell our elected representatives that we support increased funding for public schools that is distributed fairly across neighborhoods and towns. Most of all, we must insist that our children be given the quality public school education they need and deserve and which truly honors the promise of Brown.
By Theodore M. Shaw