Leadership Skills and Implementation

Progress and the Challenge That Remains: Public Schools 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

By Monica Fuglei

60 Years After Brown: Public Education Progress

May 2014 marked the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court case intended to end the racial segregation of Jim Crow laws in America’s public schools. While minority students in America no longer need armed guards and police dogs to accompany them to their rightful schools, the work of Brown v. Board is not over.

Brown v. Board of Education’s mission begun, but not completed

As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his majority opinion of the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District No. 1, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race,”  but racial and socioeconomic inequality are still a significant problem in present-day American public schools.

In his speech commemorating the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted the significant achievements in the wake of the decision. Minority student enrollment in higher education has doubled, and urban communities with high concentrations of free and reduced lunch students continue to show academic growth that surpasses many other areas of the country.

De facto school segregation survives today in public education

Secretary Duncan acknowledged that opportunity gaps persist in public schools, particularly in non-white, economically depressed and/or  isolated communities. Because public schools pull their populations from the surrounding neighborhood, housing segregation feeds a new kind of school segregation.

As a result, students of color from impoverished areas often attend intensely segregated schools. It was this type of de facto segregation that Seattle’s racial tiebreakers in school choice, rendered unconstitutional by the PICS v. Seattle decision, intended to address.

The poverty and segregation of the neighborhoods students live in are reflected in the funding issues within the schools they attend. With shrinking budgets, inexperienced teachers and squeezed administrative capabilities, schools in poor neighborhoods are suffering in a way that is reflected in how they are able to serve their students. Due to perpetual achievement gaps, many schools that serve low-income students of color have been restructured or shuttered.

Charter schools have been heralded as a solution to underserved, low-performing public schools. However, critics argue that although academically strong students thrive in a charter school environment, these schools do not benefit students with disabilities, learning disorders, or behavioral and emotional problems, thus failing public education’s mission of providing the best possible education to all students.

Discipline inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline

Recent research shows that starting as young as preschool, black students are more likely to be punished more harshly than their white counterparts. This continues throughout a child’s school years, with students of color being suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students.

Called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” this issue is of great significance to Florida’s Dream Defenders, a social justice organization that held a 31-day sit-in at the Florida State House last spring in order to call attention to the issue. They are not alone. Policymakers and the President’s own administration share their concern, and are, as Eric Holder said,”moving in a variety of ways to dismantle the racial barriers that prevent inclusion.”

Arne Duncan envisions American schools as reflections of the diversity of the country and rejects the idea that disparities and opportunity gaps cannot be resolved. In his commemoration address, Eric Holder was quick to remind us that the outcome of Brown vs. Board of Education was never inevitable, but was the consequence of the hard work of concerned Americans.

In the wake of Brown’s sixtieth anniversary, today’s focus should be on where and how educators, policymakers, and parents can work to address remaining issues of inequality and eradicate de facto segregation in public schools.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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