Civil Rights and Education Still a Complex Issue 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

Education
Racial Equity

Saturday, May 17th was the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This case ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” was not a legally acceptable way to educate America’s children, and in fact that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision was a major win for the Civil Rights movement and set off efforts of school integration across the South. Enforcement of court ordered integration varied by president until they began to be repealed beginning in 1991. Subsequently, a number of these same districts began backsliding on integration efforts, resulting in de facto segregation in many places. Further, even those districts that never had court ordered desegregation, namely those in the Northeast, are now experiencing increased segregation by race and income, with serious negative implications for students. Worse, changing demographics means the situation is likely to get worse unless we take proactive steps to reverse the trend and ensure that each child has an excellent public education.

Though the immediate effect of the Brown v. Board decision was to increase integration across much of the South, schools today are increasingly segregated by race and income. This is true for school districts that operated under a desegregation order, such as Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and states that did not, like New York, which has the highest rate of black students attending high minority schools. Nationally, integration peaked in the late 1980s with over 40 percent of black students attending majority white schools. Now only 23 percent of black students attend majority white schools, the same percentage as 1968.

Making matters worse, minority students are often isolated by poverty in addition to race. Ahigh-poverty school is one in which more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price school meals; 52 percent of Hispanic and 47 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, compared to only 7 percent of white students.

While diversity in public schools is a goal in itself, this de facto segregation impacts students in a number of ways. Attending a high-poverty school often means school districts spend less money per-pupil than wealthier districts. Data reveals that this primarily impacts minority students, whose schools spend about $334 less per student than on their white peers. As a result, these schools often can’t attract or retain the best teachers and can have issues staffing other important support staff positions, such as school counselors. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reveals that this leads to unequal opportunities for children of color. For example, 3-4 percent of students of color (black, Latino, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students) attend schools with a high concentration of first-year teachers, while only 1 percent of white students attend these schools. Similarly, nearly 7 percent of black students attend a school where more than 20 percent of teachers are not certified, compared to only 1 percent of white students. And 1 in 5 high school students attends a school with no counselor. Ultimately, this results in lower academic achievement, as evidenced by racial gaps on the NAEP, andlower graduation rates for minority students.

This situation of racial and economic segregation is complicated by a number of factors. For example, immigrant students face a number of obstacles to education despite the ruling in another Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, which gave undocumented students the same right to public education as all other children and stated that doing otherwise would “create and perpetuate” an underclass of uneducated individuals, to the detriment of the country. Charter school growth has also taken off in recent years, and many schools that were required to undergo school turnaround under No Child Left Behind closed and became charter schools. While these are ostensibly public schools, a number of charter schools use practices of questionable legality and ethics to exclude certain children. The Department of Education has responded recently by sending a letter reminding charter school operators that they must adhere to the civil rights law as other public schools and offering a brief outline of their responsibilities under the law. While its good to see the Department’s Office of Civil Rights being proactive about this, it is disheartening that such letters are necessary 60 years after Brown v. the Board of Education.

Changing demographics mean that this issue will get worse unless we are proactive about confronting the problem of de facto segregation. Next year is expected to be the first year that amajority of students in school in America are students of color, and trends indicate that this population will continue to grow while the population of white children will continue to shrink. And nearly half the students in this country already live in low-income families. If we are to continue the trend of increasing academic achievement and higher graduation rates the country needs to start dedicating appropriate resources to educating minority and low-income children. Sixty years after Brown v. the Board of Education seems like an appropriate time to start.