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Reforms, Not Courts, Seen Key in Equity Fight

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New York

As the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation approaches, advocates striving to fulfill the ruling's promise of educational equality are looking not to the courts but to education reform.

That appeared to be the consensus among more than 200 educators, desegregation experts, and others who gathered here this month to commemorate the epochal decision in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down May 17, 1954, and discuss ways of addressing the racial segregation and inequality still found in the nation's schools.

"It seems apparent, to most of the lawyers at least, that the courts are not going to take us a great deal further down the road to equal educational opportunity,'' said Brian K. Landsberg, a former official in the U.S. Justice Department's civil-rights division.

Is Integration Feasible?

Several conference participants said that the federal courts, now heavily stocked with appointees of Presidents Reagan and Bush, are unlikely to hand down decisions significantly advancing school integration.

They also noted that High Court decisions following Brown limited the ability of courts to involve suburbs in the desegregation of cities or to compel districts to address segregation caused by housing trends.

"I suspect it is simply not feasible for many people in large urban settings to participate in integrated educational settings,'' said Hugh B. Price, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

"At least in the short run, a generation of black children is going to be educated in racially isolated schools in many of the urban centers of the country,'' said Robert L. Carter, a U.S. District Court judge who was part of the team that argued the Brown case for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"So,'' Judge Carter said, "ways and means must be agreed upon to help or force those schools to produce quality education.''

The unanimous Brown decision held that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal'' and thus violate equal-protection guarantees in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, neither the decision nor four subsequent decades of legislation and litigation clearly defined educational equality, conference-goers observed.

While the participants disagreed on the desirability or feasibility of integration, they agreed that advocates for black children should forge a definition of educational equality and strategies for bringing it about.

"We don't want equalizing, we want adequacy,'' said Waldemar (Bill) Rojas, the superintendent of the San Francisco schools, maintaining that poor minority children need more resources directed to their education than their more advantaged peers do.

Substantial changes in funding, school organization, and pedagogy are likely to be needed, participants said. But they warned that advocates must choose carefully among reforms, some of which may be perilous for minority students.

Many speakers were especially wary of the current emphasis on standards-setting and high-stakes assessment, which they said is not being accompanied by efforts to support black students or insure that new measurements are fair.

'The Junk Heap of Life'

Bill Moss, a member of the Columbus, Ohio, school board, called the high school exit test adopted by his state--and recently targeted in a federal civil-rights probe--"just one more method of assigning us to the junk heap of life.'' (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

Conference participants also condemned the practice of academic tracking, which Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, said tends to result in the disproportionate assignment of minority children to lower-level courses.

"I think tracking remains the segregation tool of the 1990's,'' said Theodore M. Shaw, the associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

While they expressed some hope that school-finance-equity lawsuits will improve the situation in some states, participants said that getting government to fund the programs needed in heavily minority schools is primarily a political task.

Politics "frames the kinds of alternatives that are presented,'' observed Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

And people who have political power "don't give it up,'' asserted Virginia Mayo, the director of curriculum, instruction, research, and restructuring for Community School District 19 in New York City. "It has to be taken.''

In order to mobilize the necessary grassroots support, "the mindset of society is what has to be changed,'' Ms. Mayo said, citing campaigns against smoking and drunk driving as models.

Political Persuasion

Some warned that this movement must have staying power so that politicians will feel secure in making controversial changes.

"If you're knocked off the school board, you don't get to make any impact,'' noted Thelma Rodriguez Estevez, the principal of Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Because minorities remain underrepresented both in public office and at the polls, conference-goers said, the success of this endeavor depends on convincing white Americans that they will benefit from integration and improving the education of minority children.

Nonetheless, participants also called for government initiatives, including early-childhood-education programs; efforts to boost parental involvement; support for multicultural education; collaboration between health, education, and social-service agencies; and more federal funding for urban schools.

Ultimately, said Judge Carter, "we are in dire need of a national program and policy to secure the benefits of the Brown decision for minority children, with the departments of Education, Housing, and Justice jointly planning and executing coordinated programs.''

The New York University Metropolitan Center for Urban Education organized the conference and plans to issue a report on the proceedings within months.

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