Note: This week, Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow in education at AEI, will be guest-blogging.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation, as immortalized in Plessy v. Ferguson‘s concept of “separate but equal,” had no place in public schools. I consider this decision to be one of the most important moments in the history of our nation.
Brown I eliminated the concept of “separate” in education, which had been a fact of American life since the Civil War era. At the start of the 1954-1955 school year, the majority of schoolchildren sat in a public school classroom with students of the same race. In northern cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York, this was the result of de facto policies. In southern parts of the country, including Atlanta, New Orleans and Richmond, public education was highly segregated due to de jure policies.
The Brown I ruling is important because “equal” was far from reality for black schoolchildren. Buildings where black students learned were dilapidated, the textbooks were outdated, and the allocation of state and local funding was ridiculously low. Despite the fact that blacks paid the same taxes as whites, the system was stacked up against black children in every way. The Brown I ruling struck down “separate but equal,” and it showed the inequity in American schools for all to see.
But the courts were not finished just yet. The next year, in 1955, the Supreme Court again ruled in Brown v. Board of Education II that states had to move “with all deliberate speed” to implement the Brown I ruling. Thus, the Supreme Court pushed the implementation of Brown I to the local level. This required federal judges and school boards to create compliance timelines and parents to have a change of heart regarding who sat next to their child in class. Naturally, this type of systemic change garnered large-scale resistance.
One example includes the Southern Manifesto of 1956, in which 101 members of Congress signed a document in opposition of racial integration in public places. At the state level during the 1950s and 1960s, legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina supported interposition and nullification laws that declared the Supreme Court’s action unconstitutional. In Virginia, massive resistance tactics included closing public schools and opening segregated private schools. In the 1970s, school boards in Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago redrew attendance boundaries that stymied opportunity.
While most Americans are at least topically aware of Brown‘s implications on the trajectory of American history, how the court rulings—particularly the Brown II decision— still affect American education policy is often overlooked. Today, Brown‘s grandchildren—black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian students—are performing better in school than ever before. While the achievement gap on NAEP reading scores between white and black 9-year-olds was 44 points in 1971, that number had narrowed to 23 points by 2012. The gap in NAEP reading scores between white and black 17-year-olds was a staggering 53 points in 1971. In 2012, it was 26.
At the same time, there are several ways we are still failing to meet Brown‘s goals 60 years after the Brown II ruling. Today, some of the legal implications of the court decisions have tied the hands of many well-intentioned individuals seeking to expand opportunity for all American students. Examples include a recent Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that denied parents the option to enroll their children in a different public school because it impacted a desegregation order, or magnet school enrollment policies that support entrance examinations that disproportionately impact students of color. Often times, our interpretation of equality has negatively impacted the very students the Brown decisions were meant to help. To continue to narrow gaps and expand opportunity, we must think outside the box so that every student in America can receive a high-quality education.
Today, 60 years after the Supreme Court told the nation to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” advocates, scholars, and practitioners ask themselves: where do we go from here? To highlight the significance of the Brown II ruling, the American Enterprise Institute will host a conference titled “With All Deliberate Speed: Brown v. Board of Education II 60 Years Later” in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, November 3. One panel will get straight to the heart of the court decision, and will consist of four lawyers: Leslie Hiner, Thomas A. Saenz, Mildred W. Robinson, and Stephanie Monroe. Panelists bring a wealth of experience in litigation, advocacy and research to the table. They will identify which legal methods worked in the implementation of the decision, which did not work, and what role schools, the courts, and families play in advancing the aims of Brown today.
The Brown II decision not only mattered a great deal for American education in 1955, but it continues to shape the framework for how we deliver education to over 50 million public school students today. Equally important to shaping this framework is the demography of students in the classroom. How well those students are performing, the opportunities they are provided, and the resources available at their fingertips represent the successes, and challenges, of moving the spirit of Brown forward.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.