Civil rights and education leaders who gathered here to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka presented sobering evidence that its promises of educational equality have not been met.
African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to receive a subpar education, in larger classes taught by unqualified teachers in decaying buildings, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization held a four-day conference here May 13-16, just before national leaders converged on the city for the May 17 anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the historic case.
Those conditions come at a time when segregation in schools is growing in all parts of the country, the Baltimore-based group says. A new NAACP report, released at the conference, shows that African-Americans and Latinos increasingly are attending schools with fewer white students. Many schools have become “resegregated” in recent years, it says, after courts have lifted desegregation orders.
“Fifty years later, we are challenged more than ever,” said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. “This is a sobering reminder that it will take decades of advocacy to be able to fuel the federal, state, and local efforts to fulfill the promise of Brown.”
The NAACP, which fought a long battle against segregated education that culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision overturning legally separate schools for blacks and whites, held the meeting in part to examine its strategies and next steps in light of the report’s findings.
Three major areas of concern emerged at the conference: a lack of equal resources among school districts, disparities in test scores between white and most minority students, and the quality of teachers in districts with large minority enrollments.
Several speakers urged NAACP members to take action through the court system when they see an injustice, by filing lawsuits and briefs in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall and other activists whose actions led to the Brown decision.
“If they woke up in the morning and thought something was wrong, they’d file a brief,” said state Rep. Ed Jennings Jr., a Democrat and a member of the Florida legislature. “We have not been nearly as aggressive as they had been historically.”
The conference was held a few blocks from the elegantly restored Monroe School, the formerly all-black school that reopened last week as a museum and the official Brown v. Board National Historic Site. (“Topeka Museum Captures Brown Legacy,” April 7, 2004.)
Focus on Money
President Bush and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, were among the dignitaries who converged on Topeka for commemorations of the May 17 anniversary. (“Brown Anniversary Observed in Topeka By Bush and Kerry,” this issue.)
Much of the focus and recommendations at the NAACP gathering centered on equity in funding.
The federal government should put more money into the Title I and Pell Grant programs for needy K-12 and college students, respectively, said John H. Jackson, the head of the NAACP’s education committee. State governments should boost efforts to attract and retain qualified teachers in high-poverty schools and offer early-childhood programs to youngsters in poor neighborhoods, he added.
In addition to school funding, access to college was also a top concern of many of the approximately 200 participants at the conference.
Several speakers said that without specific, race-based programs, many African-American students would be at a nearly insurmountable disadvantage in being admitted to top colleges and universities, because their high schools do not offer Advanced Placement and other college-preparatory coursework.
Mr. Jennings, the Florida lawmaker, said last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor for admissions to its law school should serve as a continuation of the Brown decision.
At the University of Florida, whose mascot is a gator, Mr. Jennings noted, there are hundreds of “multi- generational Gators"—students from families whose legacies and contributions to the school ensured that they would have a good chance of gaining admission. That is not the case for black students, he said.
“We don’t have a problem with them having a seat,” he said of such students, but “we want to make sure we have a seat, too.”
At times, divisions within the gathering were evident, mainly on issues such as charter schools and student testing during the round of speeches.
Older participants, many of whom noted that they had attended segregated schools, tended to argue against accountability measures as likely to drive low-performing students out of school. They typically squared off against younger people who promoted tougher accountability measures as a means for ensuring equity.
Disagreement on Charters
While vouchers were nearly universally opposed, participants disagreed on the role of charter schools. Some decried the independent public schools as a threat to improving regular public schools, while others said they offered a needed alternative.
Many audience members applauded Eric J. Smith, the superintendent of the 75,000-student Anne Arundel County, Md., schools, when he spoke against charters, vouchers, and privatization measures.
“To me, those are an absolute waste,” said Mr. Smith, who previously was the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, once the site of one of the country’s best-known efforts to integrate public schools.
Many attendees also criticized high-stakes tests and the exit exams that some states are requiring for students to receive a high school diploma.
But an official from Tennessee, which will soon require students to pass exams to receive diplomas, defended the need for such benchmarks.
Douglas E. Wood, the executive director of the Tennessee board of education, presented findings that showed that earlier this year, just 50 percent of the high school seniors in Memphis had passed the 10th grade tests.
The state board is now looking at ways to offer alternatives to a high-stakes test and rework its high school curriculum to require all students to take more rigorous courses.
Advocating such accountability measures “has been a very difficult journey,” Mr. Wood said. “People don’t want to hear” that so many students are in danger of not receiving a diploma, he added.
The NAACP report says that a pervasive pattern of segregated housing has been a main factor in the resegregation of schools.
“The reality is, most whites, blacks, and Latinos still live apart,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools and a keynote speaker at the conference. “Too many people choose to isolate themselves because they fear what they do not know.”
Mr. Duncan said his strategy for Chicago, where about 90 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and the vast majority are from low-income families, has been to try to increase educational quality and offer magnet schools to lure students from better-heeled families who would otherwise attend private schools.
While the NAACP planners hosted several celebratory dinners and events, the undertone of the meeting was serious.
“After Brown,” Mr. Duncan said, “both integration and equality still elude us.”
Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Equality Goals Remain Unmet, NAACP Argues