This summer marks the 60th anniversary since the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that school segregation based on race was inherently unequal. In anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education, it is important to note that the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), with support from the Ford Foundation, studied the condition of education in the American South. Our goal then was to inform efforts to desegregate schools and colleges. This work was controversial. While approached, no Southern state university would accept the research project.
What followed was nearly 20 years of sweeping education reform to desegregate U.S. schools. The idea was to end racial separation and create school attendance patterns that were not defined by race. Looking back on Brown‘s legacy, the reviews are mixed.
On the one hand, thanks to the Court using the 14th Amendment as the foundation for the decision, all segregation was eventually outlawed. Initially focused on the American South, desegregation was extended to the rest of the country with Keyes v. Denver School District in 1973. Without Brown, there would be no Title IX or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Even Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the single largest federal initiative to account for the education of the disadvantaged, could be linked to this seminal court case. On the other hand, recent data indicate a trend of resegregation, especially in the South. In some cases, schools are more segregated by race than they were in the 1950s and 1960s.
Given the demographic patterns in the U.S., especially in the South, it’s debatable whether public policy can reverse this trend. A more recent SEF report documents that we have a new diverse majority of students in our public schools. So there are fewer white students to go around and perhaps more important, fewer middle-income students. We are concerned about the number of schools today with between 90 percent and 100 percent nonwhite enrollments.
Strongly correlated with income, these schools tend to suffer from growing disinvestment in their core capacities, weak human capital, and very little in the way of the social capital that helps students learn from each other what it takes to thrive. And when we look at correlations between these virtually segregated schools and academic achievement, it appears that racial and economic isolation negatively impacts academic success. Segregation matters, especially if it impacts the distribution of resources, shapes policy decisions about the level of public investment in public schools, and affects the distribution of talented teachers in these schools.
Sixty years beyond Brown, it is time to take a fresh look at the condition of education. We need to document how these new demographic realities are related to the level of and distribution of resources and more fundamentally, to learning opportunities. We need to know if these increasingly segregated schools exhibit characteristics—that work against student success (e.g. out of school suspensions, lack of accommodations for limited-English-speaking students, inadequate supports for academic and non-academic needs, etc.).
We should hope that the same disparities with which we struggled 60 years ago have not reemerged. If they have, this should be fully documented which, in turn, begs the policy debate we need to have about the opportunity infrastructure that helps all kids learn and develop, regardless of where they go to school. That is what Brown was all about. It is the ambition to which we should all subscribe.
Kent McGuire is the president and chief executive officer of the Southern Education Foundation, based in Atlanta. Through a variety of programs and services, SEF has been particularly concerned with questions of equal access to quality education for children and youth and to the participation and success of poor and minority students in postsecondary education.
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