Guest Editorial: 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the education gap remains

Linda Brown Smith stands in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas, in 1964. The public school’s refusal in 1951 to admit Brown, then 9 years old, because she is Black led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.
— AP Photo, File

On May 17, the nation marked the 70th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that struck down institutionalized racial segregation in public schools.

The Brown decision struck down an 1896 decision that institutionalized racial segregation with “separate but equal” schools for Black and White students, by ruling that such accommodations were anything but equal.

In this landmark decision the Supreme Court ruled that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.

Brown marked the end of legalized racial segregation in the United States, overruling the “separate but equal” principle set forth in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

The Brown decision was a major achievement for civil rights because it dismantled the legal framework for segregation in the United States.

However, 70 years after the Brown decision, American schools are still largely segregated and educational gaps remain based on race and class.

The Associated Press reports: “But for decades, American schools have been resegregating. The country is more diverse than it ever has been, with students more exposed to classmates from different backgrounds. Still, around 4 out of 10 Black and Hispanic students attend schools where almost every one of their classmates is another student of color.”

Brown ended legal segregation but could not stop school segregation by wealth.

After the Brown decision, millions of White families abandoned public schools for private all-white schools or moved to the suburbs. Many Black families with the means to do so also left for the suburbs, which have long been perceived as having higher-quality schools.

The challenge today is improving opportunity for students left in poor school districts that are more likely to have larger class sizes, less-qualified teachers and outdated buildings, textbooks, technology and curriculum.

The courts have found that Pennsylvania is one of the most inequitable public-school funding states, in large part, by leaving a disproportionately large share of school funding to local taxpayers.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, is right to call public school funding the “civil rights issue of our time.”

In addition to reforming school funding, there is also a need to increase the number of Black teachers in the classroom and to counter racism in education.

“Attending school with teachers who are not culturally fluent or affirming has nothing short of chilling consequences for Black students including lower expectations placed upon them and higher rates of disciplinary actions taken against them,” said Sharif El Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Male Educator Development in an article published last year in the Tribune’s “Race in America” special edition.

Studies show Black teachers matter.

“One study found the presence of Black math teachers increased the likelihood that Black students enroll in rigorous math classes,” said Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a historian of education policy and associate professor at the University of North Dakota in an essay on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

“Another found that Black students taught by at least one Black teacher from kindergarten through third grade were 13% more likely to graduate from high school and 19% more likely to attend college than same-race peers who did not have a Black teacher,” Pawlewicz said.

“There must be a concerted effort to address racial disparities in education as a cause of the achievement gap,” said Kurt Russell, an African-American educator who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2022, in a column published in 2023 in the Tribune.

“Marginalized students, especially Black and brown children, often face systemic bias and discrimination in the education system. Harsher punishments, low expectations, and fewer opportunities to enroll in advanced courses are examples of the intersection of the achievement gap and race,” Russell said.

Decades after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, in which legal segregation in schools was struck down, America still has not provided equal access to a high-quality education to students from all ethnic, racial and social backgrounds.

Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune

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