Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

70 Years After ‘Brown,’ Schools Are Still Separate and Unequal

Understanding the unforeseen consequences of school integration efforts
By Sharif El-Mekki — May 20, 2024 4 min read
A hand holds a scale weighing integration against resource allocation in observation of the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case.
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Fully seven decades after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, Black students and their schools remain functionally separate and unequal.

Pre-Brown de jure segregation has been replaced by today’s de facto with more than a third of students attending schools where the students are predominantly their own race or ethnicity.

According to an analysis by EdBuild, school districts mostly attended by Black and brown students got $23 billion less in state and local funding than majority-white districts in the 2015-16 school year.

Schools attended primarily by Black and brown students are overwhelmingly high poverty. Our schools generally have fewer advanced course offerings and extracurriculars. And, critically, too many of our schools have less experienced educators and a dearth of Black and brown teachers.

Seventy years later, looking back on why and how we collectively arrived here is important. One relevant and vital observation is that civil rights leaders’ desire for school integration—for access to better-funded schools—was not driven by a wish to escape Black teachers. Black and brown families valued the support and care provided by Black educators.

Their struggle was not against the presence of Black teachers but against the systemic injustices that relegated them to underresourced and neglected educational institutions. At times, well-resourced schools were mere steps away from Black families’ homes, but because Black students were barred from them, they might have had to go miles to the designated school for Black children.

The decision to prioritize integration over resource allocation was not without its detractors within Black leadership circles. Some leaders argued that the NAACP should sue for equal funding, contending that more resources for segregated schools could have yielded greater dividends in terms of educational equity. But Thurgood Marshall’s legal strategy that concluded with Brown instead focused on achieving desegregation.

The unforeseen consequence of integration was the loss of Black teachers en masse, turning integration into a one-way street. Had integration been a two-way process, with white students attending predominantly Black schools, resources might have flowed into these institutions, bolstering their capacity to provide high-quality education. Instead, white flight and the exodus of white students from integrated schools drained resources from those schools and exacerbated the practical inequality faced by Black and brown students.

The Black teachers lost in the integration shuffle never returned. Today, less than 7 percent of teachers identify as Black. In my home state of Pennsylvania, more than half our schools had no teachers of color in the 2016-17 school year—zero!

The dearth of Black and brown teachers has materially negative impacts on all students. There is now conclusive evidence on the positive impacts of having more Black and brown teachers in the classroom. Research shows that Black male students who have had a Black teacher have reduced dropout rates, fewer disciplinary issues, more positive views of schooling, and better test scores. Even one teacher can make a difference.

For better (and worse) Brown v. Board of Education continues to shape our modern education system today. Disregard for Black and brown pedagogical frameworks and educational practices that foster a positive racial identity of students of color pervades schools and districts from coast to coast. Schools of education are struggling to adequately prepare aspiring teachers to effectively serve students of color, but they simply do not produce enough Black and brown teachers to make up for that deficiency.

Historically Black colleges and universities, which produce about half of all Black teachers, and other minority-serving institutions on the whole, are doing incredible work in this area. They’re graduating higher percentages of their enrollees and get higher marks for the quality of those teachers that they launch into the field compared with other teacher preparation programs.

However, too many of our minority-serving institutions operate on a knife’s edge financially—with lagging public financial backing and comparatively small endowments to advance their work.

So 70 years post-Brown, the state of Black and brown education is not anywhere close to the vision that Thurgood Marshall likely held as he fought the good fight. If we want to achieve that vision—one where Black and brown children are afforded the same high-quality education that their white peers are now more likely to receive—it’s well past time to provide the resources the schools of Black and brown communities need. We must support also the institutions that are at the vanguard of providing the educators that are key to their success.

Only through concerted efforts to rectify historical injustices and invest in the educational futures of all students can we truly honor the noble intentions, if not true legacy, of Brown.

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