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The Legacy of Brown v. Board (2) 60 Years Later: Demography and Schools

Note: This week, Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow in education at AEI, will be guest-blogging.

The 2014-2015 school year marked the first time in American history that the majority of students enrolled in public schools was non-white. The U.S. Department of Education has projected that by 2022, 54.7% of the public school student population will be comprised of minority students, while white students will make up 45.3% of the student population.

It is an understatement to say that at the start of the 1954-1955 school year, school enrollment looked much different than it will look in 2022. But the composition of our classrooms does not necessarily look different than it did in 1955. As I mentioned on Monday, the concept of "separate" in American education had been a fact of life since the Civil War era. The majority of classrooms in America were predominantly white. The Brown decisions made way for de jure segregation to end, but over time— due in part to housing policies and district funding inequities— we have fallen back to de facto segregation.

Well-intentioned advocates, policymakers, and scholars have pushed for school integration policies in attempts to create racially balanced classrooms. The thinking is that if only we had enough affluent white students to mix with low-income minority students, we could boost the performance of our lowest-performing students. A recent "This American Life" podcast featuring journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones lays out this argument perfectly. In the interview, Hannah-Jones chronicles the experience of the Francis Howell, Missouri school district (predominantly white) which began an unplanned school integration program. This took place when the district began incorporating students from neighboring Normandy school district (predominantly black), which had lost its accreditation due to low performance. Since this school integration program occurred without any major issues, Hannah-Jones asks, why not implement a universal integration policy in every district?

This line of thinking is understandable and amiable. But the Normandy example is the exception, not the norm. Our nation's history is rife with attempts at school integration that have fallen short, including another case in Kansas City, where a billion dollars was spent in a failed attempt at school integration in the 1990s.

The federal government has, at times, actively stymied educational opportunities for students due to its "the ends justify the means" philosophy of school integration. In 2013, for example, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) sued the State of Louisiana in an attempt to block the implementation of the state's voucher program. The Louisiana legislature created the program to allow low-income students enrolled in public schools that received a letter grade of C, D or F to attend a higher-performing public school or a private school. The intent of the program was to educate, not to segregate. The DOJ saw this differently.

The DOJ wanted Louisiana to stop awarding vouchers until it could obtain "authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case." According to the DOJ, "issuing vouchers to students caused the schoolwide racial demographics to stray... Students leaving these [public] schools with State-issued vouchers impeded the desegregation process by increasing the racial identifiability of these schools." But these statements fail to address why those Louisiana students and families sought vouchers in the first place: to seek a better education, as the Brown decisions promised. In the end, DOJ "abandoned" its injunction against the voucher program.

A more localized example of Brown's pernicious legacy is my own effort to open a charter school in New Jersey in Ewing Township in 1997. In my conversations with various stakeholders prior to opening the school, NAACP members shared several concerns about how and why a charter school would undermine desegregation efforts in New Jersey. I decided to meet with a member of a U.S. Department of Education-sponsored desegregation center in New York City to discuss the merits of the school's model. Even though the official gave me the green light, NAACP members' concerns represent a widespread belief that charter schools promote segregation. My goal in opening the school was to educate, not segregate, but hundreds of advocates, reformers, and scholars continue to clash over what educational opportunity in America should look like today.

While student achievement and opportunities have increased since the Brown decisions, there is a great deal we are still getting wrong when it comes to creating a high-quality educational environment for every student in America. The Brown II decision first encouraged us to think differently about race, school enrollment, and school policies. Today, the shift from a white student majority to a predominantly non-white student population requires new ideas about equity and opportunity. Many teachers and entrepreneurs have designed innovative models to improve the delivery of education in the United States. As the demography of our schools continues to change, supporting those individuals, and exploring other models and methods to make educational freedom a reality for more American schoolchildren, is essential for keeping the spirit of Brown alive.  

--Gerard Robinson

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