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64 Years After Brown v. Board, Many Schools Are Separate and Unequal

By guest blogger Lesli A. Maxwell

"We would all be on the same bus, and they would drop us off in front of the white school; this beautiful, manicured-lawn school with palm trees and a wonderful playground right there in the front with swings. And then we had to walk to the Mexican school. - Sylvia Mendez, whose family sued a Southern California district for requiring students of Mexican descent to attend schools separate from white students.

For 9-year-old Sylvia Mendez, the physical differences between the "white" school in Westminster, Calif., and the "Mexican" school she was required to attend down the street in the mid-1940s were one way she saw the obvious inequities between the education she was receiving and what her white peers were getting. 

"We weren't being taught academics," she told Education Week in an interview in 2014. "We were being taught how to be good maids, we were being taught how to clean, how to sew, how to quilt."

Sixty-four years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of "separate but equal" education, public schools in many communities remain highly segregated by race, despite the massive demographic shift that has seen white students fall to less than half the overall K-12 population, according to federal data. At the same time, schools where students of color comprise the enrollment majority are lagging behind those with majority white student bodies in everything from access to rigorous academic courses to school-based librarians, as new civil rights data make clear.

For example, black students made up 16 percent of high school enrollment, but just 12 percent of physics enrollment and 8 percent of calculus enrollment, according to the recently released data from the 2015-16 school year. Latino students made up 24 percent of high school enrollment, but comprised 16 percent of those in calculus and 19 percent of those in advanced mathematics. 

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From the same federal dataset, a new analysis from the Education Week Research Center has turned up this inequity: While the number of school librarians has plummeted by 20 percent over the last decade and a half, schools that serve large enrollments of black and Latino students have been hardest hit.

Here's how my colleagues Sarah Sparks and Alex Harwin describe what they found: "Districts which have not lost a librarian since 2005 are 75 percent white, while the 20 districts that have lost the most librarians--three-quarters of their library staffs or more in that time--had 78 percent minority student populations."  

In an analysis of federal data last year, Education Week found that black students are disproportionately arrested at school compared to their peers and one reason why that may be is that they are more likely to attend school with a police officer than students from any other racial or ethnic group.

These inequities are why the lessons and legacy of the Brown case and the resulting fights for desegregation and equitable educational opportunities for all children can't be relegated to history.

The desegregation story is very much a live one and continues to unfold in vastly different ways. Two striking examples: The Alabama community that sought—then gave up for now—a legal effort to secede from its large, diverse school system to form a smaller, more racially homogenous district; and the wonky, data-driven work of educator Mohammed Choudhury in the San Antonio, Texas, school district, who is adamant that housing affordabilty can't be allowed to dictate a school's demographics.

To dive deep into the significance of Brown and other desegregation efforts, spend some time with Education Week's coverage over the years, including these key pieces:

Commentary/Opinion:

Photo: Tijuan Holmes, right, focuses on his work in an AP Calculus class at Mission Bay High School in San Diego in 2016. The district was undertaking an effort to enroll more low-income students and students of color in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. --Sandy Huffaker for Education Week-File

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