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Law & Courts Opinion

K-12 Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal

By Leticia Smith-Evans — May 13, 2014 4 min read
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Any conversation about the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and its impact on education in this country must consider the decades of efforts made by advocates of integration prior to the landmark ruling. Lawyers and nonlawyers alike engaged in a vigorous, carefully planned and considered campaign to eradicate Jim Crow laws and dismantle the legally mandated system of racial segregation of public facilities. Despite these efforts, in the century before the Brown decision, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently affirmed legally mandated racial segregation.

As early as 1857, the Supreme Court pronounced in the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision that African-Americans, even if they were “free,” could not be citizens of this country. About 40 years later, in 1896, the court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal public facilities were permissible. About 30 years after Plessy, in 1927, in Lum et al. v. Rice et al., the court specifically condoned racial segregation in schools by permitting the prohibition of students of color from enrollment in white schools. A number of legal challenges to racially segregated school systems preceded and followed the Lum ruling, and the challenges occurred from the elementary to the postsecondary level.

Brown at 60: New Diversity, Familiar Disparities

Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.

This special series includes data on race and ethnicity in U.S. schools and the following Commentaries on integration.

  • I, Too, Am America: Making All Students Feel Like They Belong
  • K-12 Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal
  • Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History
  • Why Integration Matters in Schools
  • Integration: New Concepts for a New Era

The deliberate and vigorous efforts of advocates to end de jure racial segregation appeared to culminate in Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, nearly a century after Dred Scott, the Supreme Court decided that legally mandated racial segregation was unconstitutional and that the system of “separate but equal” public institutions was inherently unequal. The monumental Brown decision put an end to legally mandated racial segregation in institutions—not just schools—in the United States. The court’s order, however, did not end racial segregation.

Following Brown, many Americans, including some elected officials, remained staunchly opposed to dismantling institutionalized racial segregation. In numerous districts, schools closed down to avoid having to enroll nonwhite students. It took the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for there to be significant compliance with the court’s mandate to desegregate schools. With the enactment of this legislation the federal government began greater enforcement of the Supreme Court’s order to integrate K-12 education.

Many Americans alive today lived through the federal government’s effort to implement school desegregation in the 1960s. These individuals carry with them the living memory of our country’s attempt to move from a racially segregated society to an integrated one. They also carry with them the scars—emotional, professional, and financial—of our country’s policy of stripping nonwhites of educational opportunities and restricting their opportunities merely because of their skin color.

There is no reason to hesitate in addressing these inequities and eliminating them ‘root and branch.’”

With the milestone of the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision, some may believe that the scarring from racial apartheid in this country has faded, that racial integration has been achieved, and that racial disparities in education have been removed. The truth is that public schools remain racially segregated, and that racial and ethnic disparities in education continue. The ultimate goal of Brown v. Board of Education of ending a “separate but equal” system thus remains an ideal.

To keep the objective of Brown—to ensure equality of opportunity for all—alive and in focus requires, in part, assessing school district operations to ensure that all students do, in fact, have the chance to succeed. Following Brown and subsequently the 1964 Civil Rights Act, desegregation lawsuits were filed against hundreds of school districts, which thereafter remained under the jurisdiction of federal courts as they implemented desegregation plans. Some of these school systems successfully completed their court-ordered desegregation and were removed from court supervision.

Although a majority of school districts in this country are not currently under court order to desegregate, what occurs inside their schools is effectively a dual system in which racial isolation exists and racial disparities are prevalent. Recent discussions surrounding racial disparities have been informed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which disaggregates student enrollment and educational programs and services by race and ethnicity. Data from the CRDC show that students of color face resource inequities, which are evident in school facilities, classroom sizes, and availability of textbooks. Similarly, students of color often do not have the same access to courses, programs, and curricula as their white peers. In addition, the consequences of racial disparities in schools are seen in student discipline and graduation rates.

There is no reason to hesitate in addressing these inequities and eliminating them “root and branch"; the CRDC data point to areas in need of improvement, allowing us to identify where inequities and disparities exist. Systemic barriers based on race and other factors must be eradicated in order to guarantee equal educational opportunities for all students in this country. We must continue to embrace the court’s ruling and uphold the ideal of Brown.

Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s order, the existence of racial disparities throughout education systems in this country sets forth the challenges we face. This should serve as a call to action, one that requires us to move forward swiftly to address the barriers that students, particularly those of color, face in K-12 schools and higher education institutions across the country. In light of our long history of de jure segregation, we must encourage ongoing conversations about race and education because those discussions clearly are still necessary.

In this issue, Education Week commemorates the 60th anniversary of the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down racially segregated systems of public education.

In five essays and a series of charts, Commentary explores the legacy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954, decision and how questions concerning race continue to play out in schools today. On edweek.org, researchers discuss the meaning of data on race and schools in the OpEducation blog.
A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Still Separate, Still Unequal

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