This week marks the 63rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that outlawed racial segregation in our nation’s schools, fundamentally redefining the meaning of equality in American law.
Although Brown is best remembered for sounding the death knell to Jim Crow in our country, the court’s decision should also be recognized for its powerful and equally groundbreaking articulation of the central role of public education in American democracy. Understanding how school segregation hurts all children, and how it lays the foundation for the kind of social and political fractures we see in our country today, may be the most important lesson Brown and its legacy can provide at this challenging moment in our nation.
As President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, prepare to launch a set of initiatives that could fundamentally weaken and undermine public education, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the guidance offered by Brown.
The President has signed an executive order that could amount to a frontal assault on education itself. The order directs DeVos to review federal education regulations to find examples of “federal overreach,” and “return control to local communities” — buzz phrases that, in practice, mean finding ways to funnel resources from the public coffers to support private schools. Ironically, in the initial speeches in which the President and secretary laid the platform for this effort, they relied heavily on terms that have their roots in resistance to Brown, speaking in glowing terms of “freedom of choice.”
But research and analysis of federal data show that our schools have become more segregated, not less, over the last 20 years and “choice” is a big part of that. Studies are showing, for example, that black students in charter schools are more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to be educated in an intensely segregated setting.
“Freedom of choice” also carries an ugly echo of past racism in our system of education. It was the term adopted by white school districts in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where some of the most intransigent resistance to Brown unfolded. To avoid integration, school officials scrapped compulsory education, set up separate private white academies and finally closed the public schools rather than integrate. One of the most pernicious schemes was the appropriation of public dollars for private schools, through a tuition grant program, that bears striking similarity to the voucher programs supported by DeVos. The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the concerted effort to deny integrated public education to children in Prince Edward County — but by then the county public schools had been closed for five years.
Opposition to Brown was so fierce, in part, because of the Supreme Court’s unequivocal affirmation that public education is a central pillar of our democracy. Public education, the court affirmed in its unanimous decision, “is perhaps the most important function of state and local government.” Education, the justices explained, is the platform upon which American children can build a life of personal success; “it is reasonably doubtful,” they wrote, “that any child may be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”
In addition to noting the necessity of education to personal success, the court in Brown also described education as of central importance “to our democratic society” and identified it as essential to preparing everyone to “perform our most basic public responsibilities. It is the very foundation of citizenship.”
Too often, we lose sight of the court’s powerful articulation of the citizenship-shaping function of public education, especially amid the understandable concern about the academic failures of many of our public schools.
Today, over 50 million children attend our nation’s public schools. As in 1954 when Brown was decided, public school remains “a principal instrument in awakening [children] to cultural values.” And yet, many public schools remain segregated — shameful vestiges of the state-sponsored segregation that Brown first outlawed. Progress has been hard-fought but difficult to sustain. In the north, white flight from our cities, housing segregation, and finally the increasingly narrow decisions of the Supreme Court on issues of busing and other desegregation efforts beginning in the 1970s, undermined the project of integration.
Across the country, and particularly in the South and where some jurisdictions remain under supervision by federal courts because of failures to integrate on their own, white parents continue to seek segregated education, literally “seceding” from integrated school districts. In one recent case, a federal judge in Alabama actually recognized the unconstitutional racial motivation for these efforts, yet still was unwilling to halt the creation of a parallel majority white school district.
Combating segregation isn’t just about undoing the structures of the past; it still takes root within schools in new ways. For example, seemingly benign gifted and talented programs and a dizzying proliferation of AP courses often create segregated educational clusters within schools that are otherwise integrated. Too often, the allocation of resources in such situations reinforces — rather than fixes — the achievement and opportunity gaps in those schools.
What is to be done? First, we must reckon with the true harms of segregation and recognize that though they may take different forms than they did in 1954, the damage is no less significant. The disparities in resources between black and white schools send a message as powerful as state laws that required separate schools designated by race.
Many education experts believe that a federal constitutional right to a quality education, with identified literacy and numeracy standards, could give us the tools to truly enforce the court’s mandate in Brown that “education, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
But even this would still leave us to ponder the independent value of integrated schools. Perhaps in describing the harm of segregation, the court in Brown failed to tell the entire story.
Although the court spoke only of the harm segregation visits on black children, the plaintiffs presented detailed evidence in Brown that segregation also harms white children. This evidence was compiled in in a report signed by 32 social scientists and submitted as an appendix report to the plaintiffs’ brief in Brown.
These experts concluded that segregation sends a message to white children that produces “confusion, conflict and moral cynicism.” Segregation encourages white children, they wrote, to “gain personal status in an unrealistic and nonadaptive way.” The social scientists noted that “from the earliest school years children are not only aware of status differences among different groups in the society, but begin to react with the patterns” outlined in the report. Segregation, they concluded, “imposes upon individuals a distorted sense of social reality.”
These conclusions are sobering and still relevant today. This challenging moment of deep fractures in our country is an urgent reminder of just what we have lost by turning away from Brown’s promise: the near-daily, contemporary fights — cultural, partisan and racial — may be in part a direct consequence of our failure to reckon with the consequences of segregation Brown foretold.
As DeVos prepares to launch her privatized education plans in the coming months, we would do well to remember this rich and tragic history and to count the real cost of segregated education to our democracy. Whatever decisions we make today will determine who we are as a nation for decades to come.