May 16

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal. That same day, May 17, 1954, the high court declared in a companion decision that the District of Columbia’s segregated public schools were unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

I entered all-black Dunbar Senior High in September of that year. Today, Dunbar is 97 percent black, with 0 percent white students. Francis Junior High, which I attended when the court’s decision was handed down, was 100 percent black. Today, the School Without Walls at Francis Stevens — a combination of my junior high and elementary schools and the School Without Walls — has a 73 percent black and Hispanic enrollment; the white enrollment is 16 percent.

That kind of de facto segregation can be found nationwide.

A 2012 study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools (50-100% minority).” Further, “15% of black students, and 14% of Latino students, attend ‘apartheid schools’ across the nation, where whites make up 0 to 1% of the enrollment.” Today, typical black public school students have less exposure to white students than they did in the 1970s.

So what does that say about the ’54 school desegregation decisions? Given the reality of segregation that still exists in public schools in this city and elsewhere, was Brown all for naught?

No.

Declaring “separate but equal” unconstitutional was the critical step in striking down school segregation sanctioned by law. The finding that the government cannot discriminate in public education on the basis of race took the United States in a different and irreversible direction.

However, Brown did not, and could not, change all hearts and minds. Where one chooses to live, the neighbors that one chooses to have, which communities one wishes to call home: These remained beyond the reach of Brown. The desegregation decisions were aimed at schools, not society.

Clearly, Brown laid the groundwork for all that followed in civil rights history. But law, despite its majesty, has its limits.

All public schools in our nation’s capital are now legally desegregated. But many of their students are as racially isolated as they were in my day.

The conversation, if that’s what it’s called, has shifted over six decades. Equality before the law is no longer expected to lead to black educational achievement. Today the question is how to enable black-majority schools to overcome these handicaps, given their high levels of poverty, inadequate resources and lack of good teachers and principals. The short answer is that schools with those shortcomings cannot produce educational achievement.

Spending equally on achieving and non-achieving schools produces only more inequality. It only perpetuates the absenteeism, the high dropout rates and the achievement gap that exists between schools with students of lower socioeconomic status and those from better-off families.

Thus the reality, 60 years after Brown.

In the debate over D.C. public schools, today’s focus is where it belongs: on the allocation of resources to schools in need of investments for at-risk students and support for schools desperately in need of renovations.

Going forward, the debate must also address the effects of poverty on how children learn. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which didn’t even exist in 1954, now produces the kind of information that can help educators understand how to help children from low-income families succeed in school.

By happenstance this week, I got an earful from D.C. Council members David Catania (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who were engaged in an impromptu discussion of the school system’s budget. These three legislative veterans, contrary to what some city detractors might think, were deeply engaged in substantive arguments over educational reforms. The exchanges weren’t political but focused on quality programs for all students.

This is not the kind of conversation that would have occurred in the District in 1954.

Now D.C. school leaders, and the most forward-looking city elected officials, including Catania and his Democratic opponent in this year’s mayoral race, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), are talking up-front about education, race and class and how to fix neglected schools and work collaboratively with parents.

The Supreme Court said in ’54, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Many of the District’s schools may not be any more diverse than they were 60 years ago. But the District’s response to those students in separate and underperforming schools is a far cry from what it was in 1954. Would that the same could be said about the persistence of educational inequality.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.