Washington Lawyer - August/September 2018 - 23
Eventually, the Supreme Court determined that racially segregated schools
were "inherently unequal" and, therefore, unconstitutional. The justices
concluded that de jure segregation was a violation of the equal protection
clause of the 14th Amendment and found that public education "is a right
which must be available to all on equal terms." The decision overturned
elements of the High Court's infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had
set the stage nearly 60 years before for "separate but equal" public schools.
"It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if
he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the
state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to
all on equal terms," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in Brown.
From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Brown resulted in both turbulence
and transformation in public schools, as school officials tried any number of
measures to reduce racial divisions, including controversial plans to bus children
across district lines. An October 2016 study by the Brookings Institution, titled
Segregation, Race, and Charter Schools: What Do We Know?, shows those early
efforts did work. The share of black students attending schools that were more
than 90 percent black in 1968 was 78 percent. By 1972, that figure had fallen
to 25 percent.
There also was significant progress in achievement. The number of black
students earning a college degree went from 1 in 40 to 1 in 5, and urban
communities have seen noteworthy improvements in minority student
academic achievement in reading and math scores.
Black and Hispanic students today are roughly three years ahead of their
parents' generation in math skills, according to the Educational Opportunity
Monitoring Project at Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis.
They are about two to three years ahead of their parents in reading. White
students improved as well, but not at the same rate.
not be enforced across district borders. The ruling, in effect, allowed school
officials to use borders as lawful tools of segregation, which resulted in
affluent and poverty-stricken districts sitting adjacent to each other.
The second decision came in 2007. The justices struck down the use of race in
student assignments in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Seattle in Parents Involved
in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Responding to the ruling,
schools shifted their determining factor on student assignments from race to
socioeconomic status. Thus, income integration became a way to promote
racial diversity without running afoul of the courts.
Along with these decisions, there was a powerful educational rationale for
caring about socioeconomic diversity. Most education research suggests that
the reason racial integration increased academic performance among black
students was not the benefit of learning beside white students, but more
that low-income students do better in middle-class environments than in
schools with concentrated poverty.
"If you were king or queen of our education system, and you could only pull
one lever to improve schools, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that
integrating schools would be that one lever," says CAP's Boser, who is the
coauthor of the report Isolated and Segregated: A New Look at the Income Divide
in Our Nation's Schooling System. "It comes with all these ancillary benefits for
parents, cities, and districts. It builds the social fabric, and it really does a lot
for students and student achievement."
In addition, many education experts argue that school choice options, such
as charter schools and vouchers, are demonstrably improving minority
achievement in segregated neighborhoods with high concentrations of
poverty. But opponents say that charter schools, while laudable, represent
islands of learning in highly segregated neighborhoods and don't do enough
to encourage integration.
"While discrimination still exists, it is not in as blatant and exclusionary a form as
it existed," says Jon M. Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director of
the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil rights organization. "If you look at Brown, the de jure discrimination doesn't exist today, and
Brown has made a difference. There are lots of people who have been able to
succeed, in part because conditions are better than they were in the Jim Crow
era. We can thank Brown for much of that."
ECONOMIC DIVISIONS PERSIST
Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Still, opportunity gaps persist - and have even begun to grow - for economically challenged and non-white communities. In January, the U.S. Commission
on Civil Rights released the report Public Education Funding Inequity in an Era of
Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation, which concluded that
segregation based on income was contributing appreciably to the view that
public schools are unequal in opportunity and funding.
"The Commission majority found that many students in the U.S. living in
segregated neighborhoods and concentrations of poverty do not have access
to high-quality schools simply because of where they live," noted the report.
"Low-income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality
school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance."
As socioeconomic segregation in schools has increased, experts have looked
for its origins and explored its deeper meanings. A convergence of legal and
educational factors over the last three decades has contributed to what some
call resegregation in many urban school districts.
Some argue that two of the key contributing factors to the rise of economic
segregation in schools came from the High Court itself. In Milliken v. Bradley in
1974, the justices held that integration plans propagated by local districts could
The children involved in the landmark civil rights lawsuit Brown
v. Board of Education. From front: Vicki Henderson, Donald
Henderson, Linda Brown, James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and
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